Mind controlling parasites- how sci-fi are zombies anyway?

 

Halloween weekend is drawing to a close, and as I type this (looking out a coffee shop window) I can still see the zombie makeup on the faces of those passing by. It’s understandable why the whole zombie thing can be pretty terrifying. In the movies the protagonist usually watches their once fully autonomous friends and loved ones fall prey to some microscopic parasite and become a mindless vessel, obeying the will of their neural captors, tasked with ensuring the survival of the parasite and oblivious to their own health. Good thing it’s science fiction! Right? Well, anyone studying parasitology can tell you that in some cases it’s less fiction and more science.

Whenever I teach the lab on species interaction I always spend a good bit of time on mind controlling parasites. First off- they’re just cool. Plus, there’s a lot of captivating videos out there! One of my favorite being:

(p.s. larva emerging from a caterpillar body below, viewer discretion advised!)

Great music and sound effects aside, it’s always interesting and sort of mind-blowing to see the caterpillar actively defend the larva that just busted through its skin. It really gives you a sense of just how possessed an organism can become at the whim of a parasite. Another zombie-state-inducing parasite infects snails:

And another favorite, the inspiration for the zombie-survival game The Last of Us, infects and alters the behavior of entire forests full of insects:

 

Ok, so mind controlling parasites might actually be all around us, but at least they only infect invertebrates. Right?! Well, no.

Rats have a natural (and understandable) aversion to cats. When they smell cat urine they feel fear and head in the other direction. However, rats infected with the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii, which only reproduces in the cat intestine, are actually drawn to cat urine. The parasite hijacks the sexual arousal pathway in the rat brain, and instead of feeling fear the rat feels sexual attraction to the cat odor. So, just like the snails in the video above, the rats search out their natural predators for the benefit of their parasite.

 

Ok, so mind controlling parasites can infect and manipulate the behavior of mammals as well. But, certainly humans, with their giant and complex brains, don’t have to worry about being influenced and controlled by the whims of a tiny microscopic organism. Right?! Well…

I have a habit of bringing up the universe that exists within multicellular organisms. It’s easy to think of this as a one way interaction- a large organism goes about their business and the little organisms tag along for the ride. But the survival and wellbeing of the microbiome is extremely important- so important that hosts even synthesize food for their microbiome during periods of illness to ensure that their microbial friends stay happy.

Is it possible that some of our microbial friends could be manipulating our behavior for their benefit? Some scientists have recently suggested that might be the case- we might be at the whims of a microbial puppet master. More research is needed to test these hypotheses, but I look forward to the day where taking a microbe-filled pill can change my appetite for the better and bolster my microbiome.

Outside of our bacterial microbiome, we also house a vast virome. Research published in PNAS this week has shown that humans can be infected with an algal virus, and this virus was associated with a 10% decrease in performance on visual processing exams. Additionally, mice infected with the virus took about 10% longer to navigate a maze and explored 20% less.

So, maybe we’re not so autonomous after all. Spooky! Happy Halloween!

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