A Hive Mind of One

My friend Mick alerted me that Carl Zimmer was featured in a recent episode of RadioLab dedicated to the subject of parasites (Abumrad, Jad and Robert Krulwich, “Parasites,” 7 September 2009). Despite being somewhat annoying in format and low-density in it’s information presentation, the show contains a number of points interesting to my project.


In the second part of the second segment (starting at 31:25), they deal with the symbiosis between hookworms and the human immune system. The segment consists of a profile of Jasper Lawrence, a man who had severe allergies and — having chased down a certain direction of research — decided to travel to Cameroon to infect himself with hookworms. The research in question is that of the hygiene hypothesis: the notion that many developed world afflictions, including allergies, result in part from the excessively sterile human environment. Asthma is 50 percent less likely in a person who has had a hookworm and in Africa allergies are almost entirely unknown. It is theorized that similar to the dependence of digestion upon a symbiotic relationship with non-human microflora of the digestive tract, the immune system is dependent on certain microorganisms for regulation and calibration of the immunoresponse. The complex chain of events that is the immunoresponse evolved in the constant presence of parasites, evolved around parasites; they have co-evolved to the point where their presence became necessary. “We function like rainforests; we’re ecosystems,” Mr. Lawrence says. This is the hypersea washing through humanity.

Toxoplasma Gondii

The final segment is on Toxoplasma Gondii (starting at 47:55), a parasite that lives in cats and makes their feces dangerous to pregnant women. Like many parasites, it has a multi-phase lifecycle that takes place in a multiple hosts. It only reproduces in members of the Felidae family (cats), but can live the remainder of its life in any warm-blooded creature. T. gondii is expelled by cats when they shit and the cat shit is ingested by other creatures (consumption of unwashed vegetables, inhaled while digging close to the ground — which is why pregnant women are advised against gardening). T. gondii needs to get back into the digestive tract of a cat to reproduce, so it wriggles its way to the amygdale, the part of the brain responsible for emotional reaction, and causes the host to become attracted to cats, thus, in the case of small mammals or birds, becoming easy prey for cats (it is Carl Zimmer’s argument in his book, Parasite Rex that in this way parasites are like ecological catalysts, spinning food webs ever more tightly together).

But then there is the question of humans. It is one thing to say that T. gondii might make a bird or a rat suicidal. But T. gondii infects humans too. What then?

The scientific interviewee for the segment is Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology at Stanford University. On the question of T. gondii altering human behavior, he declares it highly plausible:

Sapolsky: Pure speculation, but people who think about this stuff view it as not purely speculative. The notion that toxo can produce some sort of attraction to cats in humans: they don’t think it’s all that crazy.

That’s right: crazy cat lady is that way because she’s been body-snatched by toxoplasma gondii.

Less controversial than the idea that T. gondii might be making crazy cat people out of us is the idea that it can make people more prone to engage in risky behavior. Dr. Sapolsky mentions two independent studies that show that people infected with T. gondii are two to six times more likely to get in a car crash than those not infected. With this information in hand, host and guest make the larger point:

Ellen Horne: It might be possible — might be possible — that toxo is guiding our emotions, changing who we are in some basic way. And if you consider that toxo might just be one of thousands of tiny little parasites inside us, pulling our strings from the inside, well that thought is pretty creepy.

Sapolsky: Even if the entire lesson with toxo is that a small subset of infected people now have one half of one percent more likelihood of wanting to drive really recklessly, even lurking in that one half of one percent are some serious implications for thinking about free will. We haven’t a clue the biology lurking in the background that makes free will seem a little bit suspect.

I’m less concerned with that old philosophical saw of free will versus determinism, than with extending an idea from segment on the hookworms. Mr. Lawrence says, “We function like rainforests; we’re ecosystems.” Presumably he is referring to our bodies. But the implication of toxoplasma gondii is that we are ecosystems in out minds as well. To the naïve sort of homunculus, Herman’s Head notion of consciousness, we must now add a few animal spirits.

Update, 23 October 2009: For instance this woman must have a pretty severe infection of T. gondii.

Update no. 2, 5 June 2010: Parasitogenic felinophilia (Toxoplasma gondii) may be treatable with haloperidol, an antipsychotic (“A Game of Cat and Mouse,” The Economist, 3 June 2010). Repost from my twitter feed.

Life Logging: Not Just for Human Life Anymore

Not only should you be thinking about life logging, but you should also be thinking about it for your pet (Chansanchai, Athima, “Cooper the Cat Shows His Stuff in Photo Exhibit,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 13 February 2009):

For this Seattle cat, photography is his medium, a gift from his “parents” — filmmakers Michael and Deirdre Cross, who gave him a very small and light digital camera that hung from his collar one day a week for a year. It was programmed to take a picture every two minutes.

They wanted the answer to a question many pet lovers have asked themselves: What does he do all day?

He came back with thousands of answers — 16 of which are framed and on display at the Urban Light Studios in the Greenwood Collective. The exhibit opens with a reception tonight as part of the Greenwood Art Walk. The show runs through March 10.

Cooper the cat photographer has a blog dedicated to his exploits at http://cooper-catphotographer.blogspot.com/.

And while you’re at it, you may want to survey your environment for any particularly interesting non-living things, appliances, informational or gameworld agents, et cetera whose activities you might want to see in your FaceBook feed.

Update, 15 September 2011: Cooper the cat photographer’s blog has been relocated. It can now be found at http://www.photographercat.com/.

Friday Cat Blogging: Mogley Gets an Elizabethan Collar

Mogley Gets an Elizabethan Collar, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 31 October 2007

S. is very protective of Mogley. When we’ve gone away for any length, she has put together a package of information about his medical history and the location of the emergency veterinarian and whatnot. She sends an e-mail to the cat-sitter about precautions to observe while watching him that is so detailed and imaginative that one friend commented that is seems like we are on suicide watch with the cat.

So it figures that when S. went to Ontario for a client visit last week, Mogley had been left in my exclusive care for all of one day when he went and injured himself. He was fine when I got home, but while I was ignoring him to his wild chagrin, he put on his usual show of running up and down the hall like a maniac. When next I looked at him, he was missing a pencil eraser-sized patch of fur on his face and had grown a red knot where the fur was missing. I presumed this was some sort of blunt-force injury from an uncontrolled turnabout at one end of the hall.

After a few days in which the spot wasn’t healing, but seemed to be getting worse, it was off to the vet for Mogley. I joked that he was going to get one of those lampshades around his neck to prevent animals from chewing and low and behold, here he is with what I learned is called an Elizabethan collar. His is more like a martini glass. I am tempted to throw a few skewered olives in with his head.

And 3M sure manufacturers an eclectic range of products. Who knew Elizabethan collars were among them?

It was funny at first, but the vet had warned S. that it was going to be difficult to keep the collar on him. They didn’t say why. It turns out that he has sunk into a serious deep blue funk. In addition to preventing him from rubbing his wound, the collar prevents him from taking a cat bath so he is despondent and has taken to licking the inside of the collar as a substitute. His fur has started to get shabby and he has acquired a distinct odor. He slinks around like a decrepit elderly cat and whenever he tries to do something athletic like his usual sprightly self, the collar invariably catches on something making his stunt go awry.

He has no idea of the world of human intentions and designs, hence no idea that this is temporary and for his own good. He thinks this is his life now and it’s like one of the rings of hell (OCD ass lickers dawn an Elizabethan collar for all of eternity).

As much as I like a pet that looks like a cocktail, I can’t wait to take it off him.

Friday Cat Blogging: Mogley Loves Bread

18 October 2007, Mogli bellying up to the bread

It’s been a sleepless week of some rather arduous posts as well as a long time since the last Friday Cat Blogging. So here is a little Friday frivolousness.

Kitty is almost entirely indifferent to human food — eating it at least: if it stinks, he will try to bury it. The one exception, oddly enough, is bread. For some reason he is fanatical about the stuff. He pricks up when it goes out on the table and will launch round after round of attack on a baguette.

And it’s not some unknown factor: he wants to eat it. If I pinch off a bunch of buds of bread and lay them out for him, he eagerly chews them down as best a pure carnivore’s fangs will allow.

Here he is at last night’s dinner, bellying up to the bread basket like his claim to its content was legitimate and going to go down unharried.

Friday Cat Blogging: Too Hot for Kitty

7 August 2007, Washington, D.C., lethargic Mowgli

The weather has been unbearably hot here in D.C. — though not yet topping out the thermostat for the region in August. I’ve often wondered how an animal with a fur coat permanently affixed to his back copes with this heat. It’s never seemed to pose a problem for kitty. I guess that he has a much smaller mass-surface area ratio than me. But this year even he seems to be feeling it. He has been doing a lot of flopping, laying around and generally looking miserable.