Students in the US who are infected with a weird brain parasite commonly spread by cats are more likely to major in business studies, according to a new study. The findings suggest that the infection may be promoting entrepreneurial tendencies by reducing fear and enhancing risk-taking behavior.
Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite carried by cats and found in their feces, but which can also be acquired after consuming poorly cooked meat or contaminated water. A third of the world's population is thought to be infected with the parasite.
Once it infects a human host, the parasite can cause toxoplasmosis, which is the leading cause of death attributed to foodborne illness in the United States. More than 60 million men, women, and children in the U.S. carry the Toxoplasma parasite, but very few display symptoms because the immune system usually keeps the infection from causing illness.
But even though they might not feel sick, Toxoplasma-carrying individuals may experience changes in their behavior induced by cysts in the brain formed by the parasite, which can remain for the rest of an individual's life.
Jaroslav Flegr, a Czech evolutionary biologist, claims that the parasite is quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents.
A reduced response to fear seems to be a common occurrence. Studies conducted by Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky on rats infected with Toxoplasma showed that rodents actually turned their innate aversion to felines into attraction, luring them into the jaws of the predator. Basically, the parasite carried by the cat brainwashes the rat -- and perhaps human owners too, some claim -- to become attracted to the feline.
An assessment of nearly 1,300 students from the US also found an association between exposure to the parasite and reduced fear response. The students who were exposed to the parasite were 1.7 more likely to be majoring in business studies. Particularly, they were more likely to focus on management and entrepreneurship than other business areas.
What's more, the researchers found that individuals who attended business events were almost twice as likely to start their own business if they were infected by Toxoplasma gondii. Countries with a high prevalence of Toxoplasma infection showed more entrepreneurial activity, according to the results published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The parasite may be reducing a person's fear of failure and promoting risk-taking behavior -- the kind of fearless mindset that is generally required of entrepreneurs. Of course, that doesn't mean that infected individuals are actually more successful entrepreneurs -- most businesses actually fail within their first five years of activity and a poorer risk-evaluating ability induced by the parasite infection might actually be extremely detrimental to business activities.