What wiser heads have long suspected has now been proved by actual scientists working in real laboratories: cats control the minds of some people and make those persons insane.
The proof those of us who are not thralls to cats have long awaited came out recently, in the genuine scientific journal PLoS ONE. Scientists named Emese Prandovszky, Elizabeth Gaskell, Heather Martin, J. P. Dubey, Joanne P. Webster and Glenn A. McConkey have now proved that a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii carried by cats — plain old house cats — gets into your brain and messes around. Lest you think well, yeah, it's some rare jungle disease — what has it to do with me? let me assure you that it is not. According to the researchers, about 22 percent of Americans are infected.
It gets worse. This parasite "manipulates its host's behavior," say the researchers, whose study was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In fact, when this organism infests mice and rats, it makes them actually like cats and want to be around them.
This makes the mice and rats more readily available to get killed and eaten by the cats. Nothing wrong with that. But then the cats that kill and eat the infected rodents themselves get infected, and on and on it goes. This is one cunning parasite.
The microbial parasite carries out its manipulative task by fiddling with how the host produces "dopamine," which is not an endearment for the dimwitted but instead, in the poetic words of the dictionary, "a monoamine neurotransmitter found in the brain and essential for the normal functioning of the central nervous system." As the scientists put it in their report, "The observed effects on dopamine metabolism could also be relevant in interpreting reports of psychobehavioral changes in toxoplasmosis-infected humans."
But wait. Humans are not rodents, nor are we cats. How did 22 percent of us get in the loop? It turns out that we acquire Toxoplasma gondii by ingesting cat feces. Now. We can be reasonably certain that there is not a cult comprising more than a fifth of the population that habitually eats cat poop.
But if you have any familiarity with cats (and their owners) you'll have noticed that there are lots of ways that cat poop can get into our food. Cat owners seem to like having a tray of cat droppings somewhere in their home. Cats claw and scrape and bury their feces, no doubt from time to time getting it on their feet. Cats like to jump around and get on things like kitchen counters, dinner tables and people's laps. Cats lick their various locales. Cat owners often touch their cats — do they all wash their hands afterwards? See where things are headed?
When an article about all this was published last week in The Register, one commenter observed, "it explains the expression/phenomenon 'crazy cat lady,' and why there is no 'crazy [x] lady' for all other values of x." Indeed.
You may have observed that the world is filled with smallish, useless predators. Yet for some reason it is the cat alone that we have invited into our homes. If we awakened to find a raccoon curled up at the foot of the bed, we would not think it cute. We would be alarmed. Perhaps this is because raccoons have not infested one-fifth of us with brain worms that make us like them. Dogs were domesticated because, at least originally, they were good for something.
The ancient Egyptians actually worshipped cats. When you consider the tremendous engineering and other abilities of the ancient Egyptians and add to it what you know of their culture, don't you have to conclude they were just the teensiest bit loopy?
But it gets worse. Dopamine levels are involved in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Parkinson's disease, and schizophrenia. Said one of the researchers, "The parasite could end up anywhere in the brain, so human symptoms of toxoplasmosis infection may depend on where parasite ends up."
It turns out that earlier studies touched upon the same subject. In 2006, the link between the parasite and schizophrenia was noted, along with the fact that drugs used to control the disease kill the parasite. The same year, researcher Kevin D Lafferty reported, "The latent prevalence of a long-lived and common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, explains a statistically significant portion of the variance in aggregate neuroticism among populations, as well as in the 'neurotic' cultural dimensions of sex roles and uncertainty avoidance." Cat-provided brain worms make you crazy, in other words. Four years earlier, Czech scientists published a paper on "Increased risk of traffic accidents in subjects with latent toxoplasmosis," in which they concluded that "subjects with latent toxoplasmosis have significantly increased risk of traffic accidents than the noninfected subjects." They determined that from one-third to two-thirds of all the people in the world are infected.
I know you're waiting for the joke, but there isn't one. All this is true, from the scientific literature. You can look it up.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. His column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.