Jaroslav Flegr is an evolutionary biologist at Charles University in Prague. Flegr proposed in the 90s that Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite excreted by cats, was responsible for a host of mental disorders, including schizophrenia. In a 2012 article in the Atlantic, Flegr points to cases in nature where microorganisms are responsible for altering the behavior of a host. Flegr uses the example of Polysphincta gutfreundi, a species of wasp. This wasp uses the orb spider to incubate and then cocoon its larva. After the larva hatches, it releases chemicals that cause the spider to weave a special web that keeps the wasp larva safe while it matures. The spider also creates a special design in the web that keeps the larva camouflaged from the wasp’s predators.
Flegr’s research, conducted in Czechoslovakia, was largely ignored or discounted by the scientific community until Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University conducted research on the effects of Toxoplasma and rats. Sapolsky found the parasite actually reversed a rat’s innate aversion to cats, transforming the flight instinct into something akin to an attraction. Bad news for the rats because the cats maintained their natural instinct to devour rats.
Vaccines for mental illness
Flegr’s research poses various questions for the origins of mental illness. First, it resurrects the debate on whether its nature or nurture that creates mental disorders. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, prior to the psychiatric community embracing the idea that mental illness is the result of socio-environmental factors, physicians believed events occurring in utero caused a person to be mentally ill. These factors ranged from the mother’s emotional homeostasis during pregnancy to something as innocuous as spicy food. Research, of course, has since proven there is a direct link between cognitive impairment in children whose mothers routinely drank, smoked or used drugs while pregnant. But the onus of the origin of mental illness has largely shifted away from prenatal factors and onto emotional development.
The second vista Flegr opens is the prospect of using vaccines to prevent mental illness. If Toxoplasma does cause mental illness, then testing an expectant mother for presence of the parasite could prevent transmission to her fetus. A vaccine could be developed that prevents such transmission.
Viruses and mental illness
A 2011 article in the Saturday Evening Post explored the possible link between viruses and mental illness. Studies in the early 20th century tried to find a link between schizophrenia and influenza. According to the newspaper, some research conducted at the time proved a high incidence of the disease in individuals whose mothers contracted the flu while pregnant; other studies found no connection. Now research has come full circle.
A study of all children born in Denmark since 1981 found mothers infected with herpes simplex 2 had a 56 percent higher chance of giving birth to a child who later developed schizophrenia. But it’s not the virus that causes the condition; it’s the mother’s immune system fighting off infection. According to the researchers at Johns Hopkins University, who conducted the study, their findings align with those of other studies into prenatal causes of mental disorders. In each study, mothers whose blood contained antibodies to current or earlier infections were more likely to deliver children who would develop a behavioral disorder than mothers who were infection-free over the course of their pregnancies.
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