The toxoplasma parasite can be deadly, causing spontaneous abortion in pregnant women or killing immune-compromised patients, but it has even stranger effects in mice. Infected mice lose their fear of cats, which is good for both cats and the parasite, because the cat gets an easy meal and the parasite gets into the cat’s intestinal tract, the only place it can sexually reproduce and continue its cycle of infection. New research by graduate student Wendy Ingram at the University of California, Berkeley, reveals a scary twist to this scenario: the parasite’s effect seem to be permanent. The fearless behavior in mice persists long after the mouse recovers from the flu-like symptoms of toxoplasmosis, and for months after the parasitic infection is cleared from the body, according to research published today online on September 18, 2013 in the open-accessjournal PLOS ONE. “Even when the parasite is cleared and it’s no longer in the brains of the animals, some kind of permanent long-term behavior change has occurred, even though we don’t know what the actual mechanism is,” Ingram said. She speculated that the parasite could damage the smell center of the brain so that the odor of cat urine can’t be detected. The parasite could also directly alter neurons involved in memory and learning, or it could trigger a damaging host response, as in many human autoimmune diseases. Ingram became interested in the protozoan parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, after reading about its behavior-altering effects in mice and rats and possible implications for its common host, the domesticated cat, and even humans. One third of people around the world have been infected with toxoplasma and probably have dormant cysts in their brains.
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