January 24, 2007

Just say no to mind controlling parasites

Genomes can be nasty. All they care about is self-replication, an agenda that often leads to some very strange and not-so-nice reproductive strategies. Genes are truly selfish.

Take mind controlling parasites, for example. These are viruses and simple organisms that have evolved such that they can alter the behavior of their hosts. Essentially, they cognitively re-engineer their victims, turning them into their transmission vectors. It is not uncommon for organisms to leech off several different species in this way as part of their reproductive cycle.

For example, there is Plasmodium gallinaceum, more commonly known as malaria. It's been known for some time that this virus protozoan uses mosquitoes as its vector. What has not been known until recently, however, is how malaria alters the blood sucking behavior of mosquitoes. Malaria has had a significant impact on the evolution of mosquitoes and their behavior, much like flowers have contributed to the evolution of its pollinators, namely bees and other flying insects.

Specifically, a mosquito will continue to search for victims until it reaches a threshold volume of blood. When it hits this threshold point, it stops host-seeking. It is thought that the stage-specific effect of the malaria parasite on host-seeking behavior is likely to be an active manipulation to increase its transmission success.

Then there's Dicrocoelium dendriticum. It's a virus that primarily infects sheep -- but it has a rather convoluted way of going about its reproductive business. First, adult worms lay eggs in the bile ducts of the sheep and are excreted. These eggs are in turn ingested by various species of land snails and the eggs hatch in their digestive tracts. This hatching releases a compound that continues to change until it is released by the snail in the form of a slimeball. This slimeball is then eaten by ants. This eventually develops into metacercariae within the abdominal cavity of the ants.

And here's where it gets interesting (not that it hasn't been a riveting tale to this point): the ant's behavior is in turn altered such that it is compelled to climb to the very top of a blade of grass where it waits to get eaten by sheep. The sheep eats the grass with the ant on it and subsequently becomes infected. The cycle is complete.

Similarly, Euhaplorchis californiensis causes fish to shimmy and jump so wading birds will grab them and eat them for the same reason.

Hairworms, which live inside grasshoppers, eventually need to leave their hosts to continue their life cycle. Rather than leave peacefully, however, they release a cocktail of chemicals that makes the grasshoppers commit suicide by leaping into water. The hairworms then swim away from their drowning hosts. Nice, eh?

Think humans are immune to mind controlling parasites? Think again. It is suspected that Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that is often contracted by humans from their cats, affects human psychology. Normally the parasite works to manipulate rodents, but some scientists speculate that human cognition can also be altered.

Jaroslav Flegr, a parasitologist at Charles University in Prague, administered psychological questionnaires to people infected with Toxoplasma. He discovered that those who are infected show a small tendency to be more self-reproaching and insecure. Strangely, infected women tend to be more outgoing and warmhearted, while infected men tend to be more jealous and suspicious. Flegr has also shown that Toxoplasma may have an effect on human sex ratios -- to the tune of 260 boys for every 100 girls! (As an aside, it's worth noting that Flegr's research has been rejected by 8 journals, usually without formal review). Less controversial are studies that have shown links between Toxoplasma and schizophrenia.

This brings to mind a number of issues (no pun intended), including the freewill problem and the disturbing ease at which a virus can impact on something as important as an agent's behavior. The prospect exists for a deliberately engineered virus that can direct human psychology and decision making. The degree to which a virus could control behavior is an open question, but I'm inclined to think it's fairly limited. There's only so much you can do with germs, and simple organisms seem to be the most manipulable. Nano is a different story altogether, though.

Of course, there are other self-replicating entities that control human psychology much more profoundly than any mind control virus could. I'm thinking, of course, of memes. Cults, most notably Scientology, thrive on manipulating people with memetic techniques. Religions work in a similar manner but the degree to which a person is impacted varies from religion to religion. Propaganda is yet another way in which people's behavior can be modified.

Cults, religions and propaganda aside, a significant portion of human behavior is dictated by memetic influences. You can't escape the memepool; all our thinking is guided in part by the memes we carry. Our individual psychologies are molded by three basic influences: the memes we are exposed to, our genetic predispositions, and how we've been socially conditioned. This is a dynamic process that changes over time. It's my feeling that memes take up the largest chunk of this pie in terms of impact.

Oh, and apparently there's a fourth influence: Toxoplasma gondii. Just keep this in mind the next time you have to clean up your cat's poop.



DanJ said...

Good examples! Here is another, with pictures.

The fungus Entomophaga grylli infects grasshoppers and causes them to seek a high place and hold on tight, before death. The dying grasshopper bends its legs and locks on to vegetation, from which the spores of the fungus can spread.

Scroll down:


Anonymous said...

I did a blog on Toxoplasma gondii last year and it is truly an amazing creature. The only problem I have is that though it can infect humans, humans are not a host by which it can complete it's lifecycle. Since infecting a human means no-reproduction for Toxoplasma gondii, then it's likely that it wouldn't evolve a similiar 'mind control' over humans as it has with its regular hosts.

(FYI: Pregnant women are routinely told by their doctors to get rid of their cats. Toxoplasma gondii can cause miscarriage.)

-Jason Gammon

Martin Striz said...

People's behavior can be influenced by things much simpler than viruses: drugs. Ethanol can make one less socially inhibited (or disoriented and uncoordinated, or comatose), some fluoxetine can literally change one's thoughts, beliefs and desires from "the world is meaningless and I want to die" to "the world is full of beauty and I love everyone."

Aside from nanotech and bioengineering, another problem that we may face is that the same drug design techniques used to find new cures could also be used to find toxins, even possibly chemicals that alter behavior to make someone an ineluctable truth-teller or the real Manchurian Candidate (as the MKULTRA program tried to do 50 years ago).

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Vil said...

Yoosdef, are so very close to the factual information. A parasite is the original hacker and has gotten itself into the build of the human and other animals, or in the dna it has set itself to be built in the womb and infused into the host and can appear like simple brain tissue. It is more a leader of the bacteria world and is chemical, plauges and such. It uses the human communications to spread its instructions to the parasites in other people and also uses the same books, to tell the human it’s so called place. You’ll find many illogical statements in religions and it is wrapped around instructions of care or disorder of the host for the parasite to do. Or hybridization. It puts its same instructions in childrens cartoons for the ones who are new and anywhere that is communicable, but it’s system of worship is for its own faster regeneration and can peruse humans to further its goals. Both being the voices of evil and good more known as schizophrenia, but it hides and indirect communication is chemical and direct is literally auditory hallucinations. If it can’t get other hosts to cause trauma for the younger people it will do it itself within the mind. It tries to take the place as the natural instincts of all beings to be the only ones with foresight into the future and distracts the human from using it’s own instincts and they never run from earthquakes or tsunamis as animals do. It has pulled the life of its’ host into itself and removing it will cause the death of the host, but those that are used in its show are more a carrier and it gives up its life to further its whole aims. For the human who are eaiser hacked, sexual disorders to breed in the traits where the parasite is stronger and host weaker. But now it is almost time for the reverse, and “the voices”, will be the television, radio, and the computer extension of the brain, they are already making it past the inflammatory responses and immune system but their attacks must be used wisely lest the hosts immune system attack them. These are the divisions it uses to incite them against one another of their beliefs and world views and typic mispelling as pure accidental. Though it may seem smart, it has no physical survival and blind men read the bumps on the log, its knowledge is a consistent furthering of what the human that is used as its instrument to see the world around it is the one now growing weaker of that the parasite, lord of the flies and creator of plauges, mostly an exaggeration to appear larger, object may appear closer than they are behind you. The balance system is almost fulfilled now, hence the parasite will be the “power” of the future, one with a negative terminal and one with a positive terminal and it will charge the houses and generate electricity; but what of its future, 11 one on the high end and one on the low end, it must live in its own delusion online and will be removed one day, and stuffed into the commodity boxes for resale, and 10 will be forbidden access to the human brain system, what of the words to be a more structered solidification of atomic and smaller worlds as they harden, and even down to yatto, where the buffalo roams and the seminole blows, they will all join in…