Glowing Eye

You Are Legion, For You Are Many: Parasites and Microbes That Control the Mind

Back in March science Writer and blogger Ed Yong gave a TED talk on the subject of parasites and the fascinating ways in which they can sometimes “subvert and override the wills of their hosts” (a full video of the talk posted here on DG). In his talk Yong spoke about how rodents infected with the brain parasite toxoplasma gondii effectively become “cat-seeking missiles”; seeking out felines and getting themselves eaten just so that toxo can then develop and reproduce inside the cat. As much as one third of the global human population may be infected with toxo. Although mild flu-like symptoms occasionally occur during the first few weeks following exposure, toxo generally produces no symptoms in healthy human adults (toxoplasmosis can be fatal to infants and those with weakened immune systems, however). Opinions are currently divided among researchers as to what, if any, influence toxo has on the behaviour of infected humans (although links to schizophrenia are amongst the effects which have been hypothesised [1]). But, says, Yong in his TED talk, even if it isn’t from toxo,Given the widespread nature of such manipulations [of hosts by parasites], it would be completely implausible if humans were the only creature not under the same thrall.”

While the idea of mind control via a parasite may seem like science fiction, there is an example we’re all already familiar with: rabies. The rabies virus induces aggressive, violent behaviour in the infected, increasing the chances of the host biting other animals. The rabies virus is transmitted via the saliva of the infected into a new host. It’s a somewhat crude (and oversimplified) example but its one that is pretty much universally accepted and understood.

Not all parasites make themselves so conspicuous however, in fact it may come as a surprise to you that there may be as many as ten times more bacterial cells in your body than there are human cells [2]. 90 trillion or so microbes are your constant passengers; you are a walking ecosystem [3]. The human microbiome (to give it its proper scientific name) is the aggregate of micro-organisms that reside on and inside us; from between our toes, to the tips of our eyelashes, to our gastrointestinal tracts. Some of these organisms perform tasks which are known to be beneficial to us, the host, but the majority have thus far been too poorly researched for us to understand what, if any, role they play in shaping our lives [4]. That however is changing, especially when it comes to the gut–brain axis.

The gut–brain axis refers to the biochemical signalling taking place between the gastrointestinal tract and the nervous system, involving intestinal microbiota (gut bacteria) which have been shown to play an important role in brain function. Changes in gut bacteria are now being investigated as possible contributors to, or triggers for the worsening of, autism [5]. A 2013 study carried out by the University of California found that subjects who regularly ingested beneficial “probiotic” bacteria showed altered brain function [6]. Earlier this year researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Arizona, Tucson published that they had found that people living in cold, northern latitudes have bacteria in their guts that may predispose them to obesity [7]. How we process information, how we interact with others and the world around us, even our outward appearance, may all be controlled to some degree by our microbiome. Gut bacteria has even been proven to alter sexual preference (although only in fruit flies thus far) [8]. How much of what we think of as “us”, might actually be “them”?

The Numbskulls
At the beginning of July 2014 a paper entitled Midichlorians – the biomeme hypothesis: is there a microbial component to religious rituals? was posted on the open access, peer-reviewed online journal Biology Direct (full text here). The paper puts forward the following hypothesis:

Some microorganisms would gain an evolutionary advantage by encouraging human hosts to perform certain rituals that facilitate microbial transmission. We hypothesize that certain aspects of religious behaviour observed in human society could be influenced by microbial host control and that the transmission of some religious rituals could be regarded as a simultaneous transmission of both ideas (memes) and organisms. We call this a “biomeme” hypothesis

Practices such as the touching and kissing of holy relics, drinking from or bathing in sacred waters, and ritual flagellation or piercing of the body are postulated as a possible means of transmission of specific parasites. The practice of fasting, “known to reduce total gut bacteria and affect the gut microbiome composition“, could have a part to play in a parasite’s life cycle, or else its effect upon the host. The veneration, or eschewing, of certain domestic animals could be a means of controlling which parasites the host is exposed to. Even celibacy in holy men and women could be linked to parasitic passengers; “it has been noted that many parasites eliminate their hosts reproductive potential as they channel all available resources to maximize their own reproductive success.”

The hypothesis is completely unproven. It is mere leap of logic or flight of fantasy, depending on your own perception. Responding to one of their learned reviewers (all of whom seem entertained by the hypothesis but highly sceptical), the paper’s authors state “We also agree with Dr. Koonin that our hypothesis is outrageous and may be incorrect, however we believe that it’s still an interesting one and worth considering. […] What makes our hypothesis perceived as more outrageous [than others] is that religion is indeed a taboo subject in human society.”

This response seems to suggest that the idea of parasitic control being a factor in some acts of religious behaviour would be inherently anti-religious; that it would somehow undermine the previously perceived purpose of those acts. But, why should that be the case? If proven to be true, would it not demonstrate that ritualistic religious behaviour had a provable, physical root? If the feelings of community, of belonging, and so on that people get from religious participation were proven to be caused by parasites controlling their hosts (just as the tapeworm Flamingolepis liguloides turns brine shrimp from solitary into social creatures [9]) would that not make them all the more real? No longer mere traditions, superstitions, or “brainwashing” as some would have it, these acts would have a concrete demonstrable cause and purpose. Some would argue it could be the death of religion, others would call it proof of a creator.

Servants of the Pierced Hearts stand by as people venerate the relic of Pope Joh
If we, the host, could in fact be the product of our passengers – those whose cells outnumber our own by ten to one – in so many ways, who is to say which of the behaviours and effects caused by “them” are the real “us”? If ritualistic religious behaviour could be eradicated, say via antibiotics just as an example, then what else would we choose to change? What if non-religious ritualistic behaviour was proven to have a similar root? Would we choose to eradicate peoples’ desire to attend football matches? Muddy music festivals? Do we pick and choose which are positive and negative traits? Intelligence, body type, mental health… Do we legislate? Do we immunise? What does a homosapien look and like at the end of all that? What are we without our 90 trillion strong microbiome? Is it still what you and I think of today as human?

I fully acknowledge that is all ridiculous and outlandish speculation on my part, of course; a writer’s imagination going into overdrive, but that’s because parasitic control is an incredibly inspiring topic. Indeed, in his TED talk, Ed Yong said “I’m a writer and fellow writers in the audience will know that we love stories. Parasites allow us to resist the allure of obvious stories; their world is one of plot twists and unexpected explanations.”

Midichlorians – the biomeme hypothesis… is itself, in effect, a work of speculative fiction; building upon existing research and ideas with a series of “what if”s. One of my favourite passages in the paper reads as follows:

It seems that something like Toxoplasma gondii would be a good preliminary candidate for the role of our hypothetical microbe that promotes religious behavior as it is prevalent and widespread (as religious practices are) and its infection is associated with some behavioral traits and it is capable of latently residing in the human brain. Coincidentally, the sacred status of cats, definitive hosts of Toxoplasma gondii was part of the ancient Egyptian religious tradition for centuries. To our knowledge, no research on the association between toxoplasmosis or similar infections and religiosity has been performed, thus such an association could have been overlooked

John Reinhard Weguelin – The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat (1886)
The entire great civilisation of Ancient Egypt motivated by cat parasites. That couldn’t be true, surely? You just keep telling yourself that when you’re checking your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram today and seeing images of cat after cat after cat.

Putting this piece together I was curious as to whether Ed Yong would have read (or even heard about) Midichlorians – the biomeme hypothesis… so I dropped him an email asking if he’d like to comment upon the hypothesis. He very kindly sent me this response:

It is clear that parasites and microbes can manipulate animal behaviour but it is very hard to confirm such manipulations, even in species that can be experimented upon. Hypotheses like this will remain cute just-so stories until they can actually be verified

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3515034/

[2] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/strange-but-true-humans-carry-more-bacterial-cells-than-human-ones/

[3] http://discovermagazine.com/2007/jun/your-body-is-a-planet

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_microbiome

[5] http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/treatment/treatment-associated-medical-conditions/gi-disorders

[6] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130528180900.htm

[7] http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2014/02/14/geographic-variation-of-human-gut-microbes-tied-to-obesity/

[8] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/11/01/gut-bacteria-change-the-sexual-preferences-of-fruit-flies/

[9] http://dailyparasite.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/flamingolepis-liguloides.html

Contributing Editor
  1. Parasite
    SO what’s the parasite that causes people to buy into /anything/ without any concrete proof for the belief and form groups with very clear dogmas and enemies/outsiders.

    Culture is a group solution of horror vacui to the questionable point of our own existence. Dylan Moran calls it “an organized panic about death.” Some groups are benign, a lot are malign, all are ostensibly as pointless as our own existence if something more isn’t true. Which is why we all search. And what other ingrained behaviors are owed to the divine cat maggot? The ingrained programming to trust a group to have worked out it’s own truthiness – the “it’s someone else’s job to fact check this, and somebody must have done it by now surely – so this MUST be true” syndrome; this applies to bigfoot and arch-skeptics alike.

    If this theory is true (parasites as arbiters of belief) then how many of our learned instincts are from the parasite. And how much of our culture? And how many strains of bug? Celebrity obsession culture I can see being related to a parasite that lives in poodle crap and junk food, for sure.

    1. What you describe just as
      What you describe just as readily applies to professional skeptics and pop-debunkers as much as to anyone else. If anyone has got a maggot on the brain it’s people like “Mr. Amazing” and drones like Michael Shermer and hit and run loudies like Penn and Teller. Anyone who bandies about terms like “truthiness” is not any kind of thinker in my book either. May I suggest an MRI to see if some of the larger parasites might be visible?

    2. Just to clarify: the theory
      Just to clarify: the theory discussed doesn’t claim that religious belief could be caused by a parasite, but that ritualistic religious behaviour could be. In the article I gave attendance football matches and muddy festivals as examples of other, non-religious, ritualistic behaviours which theoretically could be controlled by the same means.

  2. Evolutionary?
    Is it possible that these microbes are evolutionary in nature? Are they primarily responsible for shaping human evolution over these millions of years?

  3. Holy ferver
    This is similar to a research paper I wrote in the 70’s about shared micro-organisms and its possible connection to our behavior. Although it was never published because it was for a class in school. It wasn’t received well but it was just a thought that our gathering together for “church” was to exchange our micro-organisms for a benefit of health or behavior.

    A church that I attended had the faith and belief of expressing the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t common but we were encouraged to be filled with the Spirit. When these things would manifest the person may shout with joy, run around the church seating or jump over them, speak in “tongues”, or even be healed of some illness.

    As a little boy I was terrified when this happened because it seemed so out of character for people to behave this way. It almost seemed to be a release of mind, thought, control of the person and they weren’t even aware of what they had done. We always would shake hands and hug everyone before or after each service. My father was germ-a-phoebe so I had the awareness to wash my hands and be careful of what I touch.

    Some people would come to church hacking and coughing, obliviously sick, so I just knew everyone there was going to come down with it. Rarely did anyone else get sick though and the thought occurred could God be a virus or bacteria that we exchange between us that strengthens our immune system or even rewrites or DNA back to an original copy when damaged.

    That level of thought wasn’t excepted by many then but mothers at that time still would expose their children to other children with chicken pox or mumps just so they could get it over with and develop their immunity. They believed that it was easier for their kids to have the disease at a younger age so it wouldn’t be as hard for them when older.

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