An article over at The Atlantic takes a look at recent studies of the parasite Toxoplasmosis gondii, best known as the parasite we humans catch from cats, especially examining a new study that throws everything we know about the parasite into question.
The parasite causes a disease, confusingly called "toxoplasmosis," that is believed to manipulate human behavior: men become more introverted, women become more extroverted, for example. And though toxoplasmosis is rarely dangerous in healthy people, a compromised immune system can cause the parasite to spring into action, sometimes resulting in death.
Yet a new study this week takes a look at the brighter side of toxoplasmosis infection. A description of the experiment, as told by one of the researchers:
We had people sit in front of a monitor, and they were required to press a button with one hand if a ‘go' signal appeared. When a ‘stop' signal instead appeared, they were required to shift and press a button with their other hand.
Those infected with the parasite actually performed significantly faster than those not infected. The researchers believe the improvement is due to the parasite's ability to trigger a flood of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. How dopamine affects the brain isn't fully understood, but could include this odd test result.