Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Real Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

In one of the remakes of the famous film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), a horrific alien parasite arrives on Earth via spores from outer space that culminate in billions of beautiful flowers all over the planet. When curious or captivated humans approach the flowers, they release tiny spores into the air that are respired - then become motile parasites in the brain. Within days, the affected people become emotionless automatons and cease to have any recognizable emotional or personality dynamics.

Could an alien entity really invade the brains of humans and hijack the neuro-chemistry of more than half the population? Turning whole nation states into wandering parasitically-infected "robots" or schizophrenics doing the bidding of the parasite?

Seems its already happening, but not from alien spores or pods.

According to an article 'A Game of Cat and Mouse' in The Economist (June 5, p. 85) the "down to Earth" pathogen (see effects in image) Toxoplasma gondii - related to the plasmodium agent that causes malaria- has now infected as much as 60% of the global population.

Most attention has previously focused on the pediatric aspect of treatment, beccause the pathogen can inflict much damage on the fetus, lacking an adequate immune system to cope with it. However, it seems adults now have much to fear to, as the parasite can get into the bloodstream and affect the neuro-chemistry of a whole population. Much recent evidence, in fact, discloses people have had their behavior and personality totally altered. Worse, entire national populations can be altered in their behavior (primarily higher neuroticism), if the toxoplasma infections are high. (Correlation analyses shows the incidence of schizophrenia corresponds to the proportion of Toxoplasma infection. Of course, we all know correlation isn't causation - but when it's associated with dozens of countries one does have to take note!)

Some of the behavioral changes noted in the article:

(1) Poor reaction times leading to many more accidents, including road accidents

(2) Severely shortened attention spans and no desire to seek out novelty

(3) Those who suffer from schizophrenia are more likely to have been exposed to Toxoplasma.

How is the infection acquired? According to one scientist at the Imperial College, London, Toxoplasma cycles between rodent and feline hosts "living out different phases of its existence in each". In cat, for example, it resides in the wall of the small intestine and passes out in feces. These are then picked up by rats and mice and also by humans - especially those that keep lots of cats and come into contact with soiled cat litter.

When they enter any mammal, including humans, they can form cysts (see photo) in the brain, liver and muscle tissue.

But why the affect on human brain neurochemistry? The answer remained obscure until researcher Glenn McCookey of the University of Leeds analyzed the DNA of Toxoplasma. He identified two of its genes which encode enzymes involved in the production of dopamine. Interestingly, earlier research had shown dopamine is specifically involved in schizophrenia. (In the schizophrenics I saw in Barbados, most habitually saw and battled "demons" or "Satan" in various forms, both human and animal.)

One drug known to work is Haloperidol, by blocking the brain's dopamine receptors.

What of whole nations possibly infected by this critter? How would we - in a (hopefully) less toxoplasma- infected nation like the U.S. of A., counter a nation where nearly 95% of its population is infected - and who see "enemies" where none exist and launch attacks on other countries because of it?

Perhaps at any future emergency UN Security Council meeting (following some unprovoked attack of one nation by another), we'll need to bring in not only therps from the psych dept. of some university, but also epidemiologists from CDC!

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