Ty Johnston, PharmD Student
Have you been wanting to leave the 9 to 5 grind, but been too afraid of the consequences to take the leap? Well, maybe cat feces can reduce your fear and help give you the push that you need. In all seriousness, a newly published study this week shows that a common parasite found in cat feces, called Toxoplamsa gondii, is associated with entrepreneurial behaviours. The study, published on July 25, 2018, in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, provides some evidence that certain infections can not only change our individual behaviour, but also play a role in shaping the global economy.1
What isToxoplasma gondii?2
Toxoplasma gondii is an organism that silently and harmlessly infects between 10-80% of the population, depending on the country. People commonly become infected with T. gondii through direct or indirect exposure to cat feces or other contaminated sources, such as undercooked meat. When an individual becomes infected, they are known to have toxoplasmosis.
Is toxoplasmosis dangerous? Based on current evidence; only if you’re pregnant. Acute toxoplasmosis during pregnancy can pose risks to the fetus, such as mental retardation, blindness and other neurological conditions. For this reason, it’s important for pregnant women to avoid cats – consult a healthcare professional if this applies to you and you’re concerned about the safety of your pregnancy.
In healthy, non-pregnant individuals, symptoms of an acute T. gondii infection are indistinguishable from the common flu and occur over 1-2 weeks. However, the majority of people don’t have any symptoms at all and instead become chronically infected, where the parasite goes to live in the brain or other parts of the body. Chronically infected individuals don’t show any signs of sickness, but cases have been reported of slight behavioural changes.
The majority of evidence behind toxoplasmosis causing behavioural changes comes from studies done on lab mice infected with T. gondii. It’s been shown that acute infections in mice makes them less fearful of cat urine and thus, less afraid of cats.3 It’s thought that the presence of T. gondii in cats has been a result of an evolutionary advantage that the parasite provides. An infected cat indirectly transmits the infection to mice, who will then fear cats less, giving cats a predatory advantage. Thus, the parasite has been able to thrive using cats as hosts and in turn, humans through indirect contact with cat feces – which can commonly occur for any cat owner.
In humans, it’s hypothesized that T. gondii infections cause hormonal and neurological changes in the brain that lead to increased risk-taking behaviours. The parasite has the potential to increase impulsivity, ego, ambition, and the pursuit of self-achievement.1 Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists often rank high in these characteristics; examples include the tendency to take financial risks, a constant need for achievement, and overconfidence. How do toxoplasmosis infections cause these behavioural changes exactly? One likely explanation is by influencing testosterone, as the parasite has been linked to increased testosterone levels in humans.1 Greater levels of testosterone can enhance risk-taking, impulsivity, and aggression.
The results of the study mentioned above were focused into three patterns: how the infection impacts university students, business professionals, and how global patterns of the infection influence entrepreneurship in varying countries.
- Students that tested positive with the parasite were 1.4x more likely to major in business. Among business majors, positive individuals were 1.7x more likely to have an emphasis in management and entrepreneurship relative to other business disciplines.
- Business professionals
- Professionals who tested positive were 1.8x more likely to have successfully started their own business. The infection was shown to be a positive predictor of entrepreneurship among professionals.
- Global patterns
- Countries with a higher prevalence of the infection had a greater proportion of people intending to start their own business and number of people currently engaged in entrepreneurship. In addition, these countries also had fewer people who were afraid of starting a business due to fear of failure.
Although this one study alone doesn’t prove that T. gondii increases entrepreneurial spirit, it does raise some interesting questions, such as – would certain businesses exist if the founder was never infected with the parasite? Is it possible that without the infection, that these founders would have been too fearful and unwilling to take the chances they did? Interestingly, the research highlights the potential role of infectious organisms in shaping patterns of entrepreneurial behaviour in various countries. In what ways do you think that this could impact society? Perhaps infections such as toxoplasmosis have the potential for large-scale impact, like on the global economy.
Do We Really Control Our Own Behaviour?
Infectious organisms, such as viruses and parasites play a role in shaping our immune system, mental health, and even influencing sexual attraction. These research findings suggest that infections can also affect our behaviour and potentially cultural and business practices in society. Personally, I’ve always been one to think that I have complete control over my own decisions. However, it’s interesting to see that something as small as one parasite may be playing a part in influencing our decisions.
Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite commonly found in cat feces and undercooked meat that can cause hormonal and neurological changes in the brain that may influence our behaviour. Recent evidence has provided interesting results, showing that such behaviours include being less fearful, more likely to take risks and engage in entrepreneurial activities. Lastly, the evidence proposes further questions such as – to what extent do microorganisms influence individual and cultural behaviours and outcomes?
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- Johnson S, et al. Risky business: linking Toxoplasma gondii infection and entrepreneurship behaviours across individuals and countries. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Published 25 July 2018.
- Dynamed Plus: Toxoplasmosis