Crazy cat ladies have been confirmed to be a real thing. Well, sort of…
We’ve all met people that seem more fascinated with their feline friends than their loved ones – some give up any semblance of domestic cleanliness in exchange for feline company.
Have you ever wondered what makes humans so “crazy” about cats?
It turns out that cats have a mischievous and interesting reputation in neuroscience. There is research to suggest that a particularly dangerous single-celled organism can infect most animals and birds, but cats – wild and domestic – are the most common carriers.
Today, about a third of the world’s population is infected with the parasite, called Toxoplasma (or Toxo for short) – and most of those afflicted don’t even know it. In healthy people, symptoms often don’t show up at all, and if they do, they’re mild and flu-like. However, these are just the physical symptoms; Toxo has been proven to affect the brain.
The parasite can slow reactions and decrease concentration, which may explain why people who get in traffic accidents are three times more likely to have been infected with Toxo.
Researchers showed that Toxo could travel into a rat’s brain and cause the rat to no longer avoid areas where cats live. The rats, contrary to survival instincts, become attracted to the smell of cat urine. Previously repulsed by the smell, these brain-infected rodents run joyously through urine-laden environments.
These same protozoans can affect the brains of humans. Immune-compromised patients, like those with AIDS, can contract the infection from a litter box and develop dangerous brain abscesses. Several studies have found connections between Toxo and schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD, and aggression. In severe cases, patients are treated with powerful antibiotics and told to give away their cats.
According to Jaroslav Flegr, a scientist infected with the tiny organism, Toxo is far more problematic to even the general population than many previously thought.
With up to one-third of the world infected with the parasite, Flegr now calculates that Toxo is a likely factor in several hundred thousand road deaths each year. Also, analysis of recent data revealed that many people who have the latent infection feel intrepid in dangerous situations. “Maybe,” he says, “that’s another reason they get into traffic accidents. They don’t have a normal fear response.”
Toxo contains an enzyme that creates dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Humans given dopamine pills are at an increased risk of impulsive and risky behavior. Excess dopamine activity is also involved in schizophrenia.
So, is Toxo the reason many people love cats (a whole lot)?
Right now there’s an ongoing debate among the science community. It’s hard to say either way, but we do know that Toxo is something real, can infect men and women alike, is linked to subtle changes in behavior and can even be a contributing factor to schizophrenia. While the link between an area’s cat population and its rate of Toxo infection is unclear, the desire to create a cat commune in your condo certainly seems like some form of mental illness.