Half the people in the world have brains that are infected with Toxoplasma parasites. The eggs of this parasite live in the guts of cats until the parasites hatch and make their way up to the cat’s brain. Are they dangerous? They can be, but in very subtle ways.

Bill Christensen writes in LiveScience.com that at first scientists didn’t think these parasites were a problem, because when they intentionally infected rats with them, the rats seemed fine. But then they found that the brains of these infected rats were subtly different from those of ordinary rats.

Normal rats avoid areas that have been sprayed with cat urine, but infected rats did not follow this self-protective behavior. In fact, some of the infected rats actually sought out these smelly spots. In other words, the parasite infection causes the rat to become self-destructive.

UPDATE: A physician wrote us this: “Your story is probably based on a somewhat outdated statistic that the European country known to have the highest rate of antibody-positive tests for Toxo, France, at one time had a 55% seropositive rate. (More recent statistics show a drop in prevalence over the past ten to twenty years).

“The article states and implies many things about Toxo which are simply untrue, and tend towards the hysterical. Most infections aree self-limited and may be so mild as to go unnoticed. It’s a big public health issue only for risk to immunocompromised and newborn individuals. It is exceedingly rare to see evidence of neurologic infection (cysts, as described in your article) in otherwise healthy individuals, and no evidence that ‘subtle’ brain infection is part of routine exposures.

“A positive titer (that 55% figure) does not signify active brain infection, any more than having a positive antibody test for chicken pox means you currently have chicken pox. It merely indicates exposure at some point in your life. The average current exposure rate, according to antibody tests on sample populations, appears to be about 15-25% in the US and Canada.”

“To learn more, click here.”

Art credit: http://www.freeimages.co.uk

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