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August 04, 2006

Does a parasite shape your country's personality?

Toxoplasma gondii parasites. Photo by Ke Hu and John Murray

When it comes to biology, there is nothing...and I mean NOTHING...weirder than parasitology. The latest proof comes from researcher Kevin D. Lafferty, at UC Santa Barbara. According to Lafferty's paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, some of the cliché differences between cultures ("You French are so neurotic!"You Japanese work so much." "You Americans are so loud and impolite.") may be partially caused by the parasitic protozoa Toxoplasma gondIii.

Toxoplasma often infects cats and other mammals, including humans. In humans, infection may cause some mild flu-like symptoms (often it causes no symptoms at all), but in small mammals like mice and rats it can cause significant behavioral changes. For instance, infected rats lose their fear of cats, making them easy prey (and thereby allowing the parasite to spread to the cat). There's long been speculation that Toxoplasmosis infection can also alter the brains of humans. For instance, people with Toxoplasma tend to be more self-doubting and insecure.

What Lafferty's done is to look at the rate of Toxoplasma infection in different countries (4% in Korea, 67% in Brazil) and compare it with psychologist's measures of traits like risk-adversion in different countries. And it turns out there is significant correlation.

Want to read more about the study? Seed Magazine writer Carl Zimmer has a great write-up on the study on his blog. By the way, Zimmer's book, Parasite Rex is a great introduction to parasites and their world.

(Toxoplasma photo by Ke Hu and John Murray)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at August 4, 2006 06:07 PM