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eXile Classic / August 21, 2007

They get in your mind… They make you do things!
- General Owen referring to the Brain Bug in Starship Troopers.

This isn’t a movie, kids. The Brain Bug is real.

It doesn’t look anything like those big fat brain worms you see in sci-fi flicks.

You need a microscope to see the real Brain Bug: a tiny single-celled parasite that goes by the scientific Latinate of Toxoplasma gondii. But just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s not powerful. In the realm of brain-controlling parasites, T. gondii – TG for short – takes the big tissue. No other creature exerts as much control over human minds – or controls so many of them. TG influences every nuance of your personality. It determines how you feel when you wake up in the morning, your career path, how you relate to others, the quality of you mating partner – you name it, TG controls it. And there’s no cure. Once it sinks into your brain, you’re a slave for life.

TG enters the body through the mouth, piggybacking on uncooked meat or bits of feline fecal matter. Once inside, the virus produces cysts filled with parasite zygotes. After the initial incubation period, these cysts travel through your body, accumulating in brain and muscle tissue. Once lodged in the brain, the Brain Bug hijacks your neuronal controls, taking it upon itself to regulate dopamine, norepinephrine and other major neurotransmitters. These chemicals are responsible for just about everything you do, think or feel.

What does TG do with this power? It depends on your wheter you’re XX or XY. It turns men into brooding, anti-social risk takers. But not like James Dean. Infected men don’t become cool – they become morons. Their IQ drops, as does their attention span. Their coordination goes out the window. Men become increasingly depressed, racked with guilt and self-doubt. Not surprisingly, studies show that they also become less attractive to women. Psychotic episodes and wild mood swings are also thrown into the mental package. Sounds like someone you know? It should, because half of all males are infected. If not you, then they guy next to you.

But while males are transformed into bumbling, chronically depressed, accident-prone idiots, women appear to benefit from the Brain Bug. Studies show that TG-infected females are more outgoing, socially adjusted, caring, and exhibit higher IQ. They also love to bone.

The TG-cat link might just explain why chicks dig on cats so much. After all, they’re unwittingly creating the ultimate feminist dream: society populated by smart women and dumb, easily manipulated men. But dream is closer to reality than you might think. It’s long been an observable fact that women are smarter men; most teenage girls can easily match wits with any 40-year-old man. The reason women haven’t dominated in western society is a) the brute strength of men and 2) babies. But that’s all changing; women have long enjoyed equal rights, but are only now increasingly giving their biological function the finger. If the 21st century belongs to women, it will be partially thanks to TG.

But it’s not all good for the female sex; TG can still send some women off the deep-end. One 22-year-old female went into permanent psychosis, freaking out that she had no veins in her legs. Her clueless doctors first misdiagnosed her as a schizo case, until someone had the bright idea of checking her for TG antibodies. That’s the only way she got into the medical literature. But there are thousands more cases of TG-induced psychosis that fly under the medical radar for the simple reason that no one’s looking.

* * * *

THE BRAIN BUG isn’t restricted to far-off tropical disease hell. It’s one of the most common human parasites out there, infecting one out of every two people on the planet. This includes developed societies. If you’re unlucky enough to be European, you probably have it. France, Germany and Britain have an almost 100 percent infection rate. America is slightly better off, with only one out three people carrying the Brain Bug.

Freaked out yet? Well, it’s kind of like that dude in Knocked Up says, “It’s not herpes if it’s everywhere.”

With half the globe infected, the Brain Bug not only influences humans on the individual level, but on a civilizational one. Kevin Lafferty, a scientist at UC Santa Barbra, thinks the parasite affects the way people “relate to ego, money, work and rules.” TG could even be used to help us understand cultural differences among nations. The fact that the entire EU is under Brain Bug control might explain why these former warrior nations have gone the way of the Eurofag. Could it have had something to do with the female cultural dominance that comes as a result of widespread TG infection?

This is only speculation at this point. The literature on TG and culture is extremely slim. But it’s possible that TG will one day be considered a major factor – right up there with climate and resource scarcity – determining human evolution and the fate of nations, from cat-loving Egypt to modern France. One Czech parasitology study shows that TG infection makes people five times more likely to be involved in car crashes. The researchers predicted that at least one million people die because in TG-related traffic accidents every year. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Brain Bug is easy enough to spot with a simple antibody blood test. The problem is that no one gets tested. As TG infections are largely asymptomatic, the majority of people are oblivious to them. Only AIDS patients and other immunosuppressed hosts react to it. But even then, the symptoms are hardly dramatic, coming off as a mild case of the flu that goes away within a few weeks. But just because it doesn’t let you know it’s there, doesn’t mean it’s just idling around.

While the media obsesses over H5N1, TG is slowly working its way into more and more of us. It even infiltrates the human reproductive process, passing from mother to child during pregnancy. Not only do kids with congenital TG risk being born severely retarded and disfigured, they’re also likely to develop schizophrenia. Indeed, with TG’s help, scientists may finally unravel the schizophrenia mystery. Post-mortem analyses show that the Brain Bug destroys astrocytes, a specialized brain cell that provides maintenance work for neurons. Damage to these cells has long been associated with schizophrenia. What’s more, there is evidence that TG injects itself into human DNA, permanently writing itself into the human genome.

Antipsychotic drugs used to treat schizophrenia and mood disorders have shown a decrease in the behavioral changes brought on by TG infection. But it’s not a cure. TG jacks up people’s dopamine levels, while the drugs merely inhibit them. It’s just a quick fix that counteracts the parasitic control of your neurons and leaves the parasites intact.

On the cure front, the news isn’t good. TG doesn’t always respond to treatment. While the flu-like symptoms can be treated, most antibiotics don’t reach all the parasite cysts. A protracted multi-drug treatment is necessary to wipe your body clean. Even with the treatment, re-infection is possible.

The Brain Bug is nothing new, it’s probably been with us ever since the first homo sapien and has controlled us for just as long. But to what end? Simple: reproduction.

TG is a parasite of cats, both domestic and wild. It lives and reproduces in their guts. Though cat specific, it needs a secondary host in which to incubate its babies. To complete the Brain Bug’s mating dance, these zygotes, once mature, have to make their way back into a cat. The zygotes are immobile and lodged inside various tissues of their host, so there’s only one way to do this: the host must be eaten. This is where the mind control tricks come in. To make reproduction a sure bet, the Brain Bug has evolved to modify its host’s behavior to make it more likely that a cat will pick them off for dinner. To achieve this, the Brain Bugs make them stupid and indecisive.

Controlled laboratory tests on rats confirm this. Once infected, the rodents start behaving as if they are cast in a Mountain Dew commercial. Just like human males, the rats become dumb, compulsive risk takers. They become oblivious to danger, but when faced with it, have no idea of what to do. Even the smell of cat urine – the most nightmarish smell known to rats, one that is used as a control for pure rat panic – no longer scares them. Some of the rats become so idiotic that they actually start hanging out at cat urine-drenched spots, just waiting for the cat to bring it on. And that was just fine for the cat, as well as the Brain Bug. It’s mutually beneficial relationship. The Brain Bug helps cats eat, and the cats help the Brain Bugs reproduce.

It’s an extremely successful reproductive adaptation when it comes to rodents and other small animals. When it comes to humans, it’s a useless, dead-end strategy. Cats haven’t hunted humans for a long time. So no matter how much TG screws with our heads, it isn’t likely we’re going to become cat chow. For the Brain Bug, human infection is like anal sex – more recreation than procreation. It seems to like it, too.

 

This article was first published in The eXile in August 2007.

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