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Our Little Friend of the Week: Parasites Edition (3/3)

Sorry for the delay…I’ve been both busy and lazy, forgive me 😛 Now. The first two were the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of parasites. I wanted to end this “Trilogy” with the most interesting bits of information about our little parasitic buddies. Granted, these would still count as the “bad”, but I find these to be more interesting. I hope you will too. Now, allons-y!

Mind-altering Parasitism is mostly what I will focus on today. I find it to be really fascinating how parasites can alter the brain chemistry of its host. Here’s an example of such an occasion…from an article I had read awhile back when I took Parasitology 1 a year ago.

Toxoplasma gondii: the “brain-hijacker”

This single-celled pathogen infects over half the world’s population, including an estimated 50 million Americans. Each of Toxoplasma’s victims carries thousands of the parasites, many of these residing in the brain. Scientists began to study this little fellow to try to find the reason for its impeccable success.

Researchers in Sweden report that the parasite spreads through the body by manipulating mobile cells that are part of the immune system. Toxoplasma hijacks these dendritic cells and makes them race around the body and ignore commands from other immune cells to commit suicide. Thus, a problem. The dendritic cells sneak the parasites into the brain and other organs, acting much like a Trojan horse. Very Ninja like, I’d say. But this can cause SERIOUS issues for the victim, as you can imagine.

Strategies like this one have made Toxoplasma incredibly widespread yet incredibly obscure at the same time. Mention the parasite to most people and chances are you will draw a blank (unless they are enthusiasts like myself!). Pathogens that infect far fewer people, like the Ebola and West Nile Virus, are far more known.

For most people, Toxoplasma causes no serious effects. It manages this by hijacking our cells and immune system, and establishing a careful harmony between parasite and host. Moral of the story: Once you get infected…you’re infected for life. More or less. However, for most people it wouldn’t be much of a problem. Toxoplasma can, however, cause serious brain damage in those with weak immune systems, like fetuses and adults with AIDS (or those taking immunosuppressants).

Cats play a major role in the parasite’s success. Our lovely felines can carry it in their intestines, where they can produce egglike cysts called oocysts. A single infected cat can shed 100 million oocysts in its droppings. The oocysts can survive in the soil for over a year and can contaminate drinking water. Oocysts can infect humans, by the way. Undercooked pork, chicken and other meat is another mode of being infected. So be careful when you cook. Once Toxoplasma enters a host, it spreads quickly. Within hours it can be detected in the heart and other organs. It is even able to infect the brain, which is protected from most pathogens by a tight barrier.

Scientists believe that the parasite is directing cells to move and to disseminate through the body. Antonio Barragan and his colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm had put dendritic cells in a dish and injected them with Toxoplasma. They noticed that the parasites triggered a peculiar change: the dendritic cells became hyperactive, crawling for an entire day. Injecting dendritic cells carrying Toxoplasma spread the parasites to the brain and other organs MUCH faster than injecting Toxoplasma alone. The researchers concluded that Toxoplasma was taking charge of the dendritic cells and riding along with them. Their results are published online in the journal Cellular Microbiology if you want to learn more. Or google it, my friends.

Parasitic Progress:
Toxoplasma gondii, the smaller organism at top, hijacks cells of the immune system. Scientists used mice to monitor the movement of Toxoplasma, highlighted above. Dendritic cells help the parasite spread faster than it could alone. Crazy, huh?

Furthermore, As Toxoplasma spreads through the body, it invades cells. Unlike other pathogens, Toxoplasma can enter almost every type of cell in the bodies of thousands of host species. The parasite slips into a cell by latching onto its surface and pulling the membrane over itself. It just sits there, and the host doesn’t recognize it as a foreign body it should destroy. Thus, no autoimmune reaction happens. But have no fear, there is a bit of relief in this. If Toxoplasma simply spread from cell to cell, it could cause serious harm. BUT killing its host is not in the parasite’s best interests: its goal is to get into its final host, cats, the only creature in which Toxoplasma can reproduce by making oocysts that are shed in feces.  Toxoplasma has evolved to be extremely contagious, but not very harmful.

However, there are certain individuals who should be careful. Toxoplasma becomes a menace when it does not have a healthy immune system to control. Pregnant women infected for the first time by Toxoplasma may pass it to their unborn children. Without a strong immune system to keep the parasite in check, a fetus can suffer massive brain damage. Up to 4,000 children are estimated to suffer toxoplasmosis in the United States each year. Toxoplasma is also dangerous to adults with weakened immune systems. The cause may be AIDS or immune-suppressing drugs given to people who receive organ transplants. A quiet Toxoplasma infection can suddenly “explode”, if you will.

Most scientists believe that people with healthy immune systems had no effects from Toxoplasma. But some studies in recent years have hinted that the parasite can exert surprising effects on behavior, at least in animals. In 2000, British scientists demonstrated that rats infected with Toxoplasma lost their fear of cats. They proposed that this strategy increased the parasite’s chances of getting into its final host. Clever, isn’t it?

In fact, it went so far as that the mice held a mild ATTRACTION to the cats odor. So, it is not just a loss of an old behavior…but a development of a new (odd) one. The mice were still afraid of other animals such as dogs or rabbits…but not of cats (which they are hard-wired to be frightened of…necessary for survival). It is possible that the parasite alters the production of certain neurotransmitters that are responsible for these instinctive fears and lack of attraction. More studies are being done to get a more accurate sense of what is really going on. So we don’t have all the answers right now.

Last note: Recent studies suggest that Toxoplasma is rare in meat sold in stores in the United States. However, experts still recommend cooking meat thoroughly to kill any parasites…which you should be doing ANYWAY. If you didn’t have any reasons to before, you surely do now. Also, as for the cats…you can keep your darling fluffy…just keep her inside (if you have a weak immune system at least). She will thank you, and you’ll be a bit healthier yourself!

I hope that this didn’t terrify I hope to at least have peaked your interest, even in the slightest bit. Comments are welcome and encouraged. Not sure what will come next week…I’ll be busy with band camp so mentally I’ll be a bit drained…but I’m sure it’ll be something interesting. Perhaps it’s time for me to blog about my FAVORITE disease…Flesh Eating Bacteria! We’ll see. Anyway, see you next time.

à bientôt!





Our Little Friend of the Week: Parasites Pt. 1: The Good

~There will be photos of parasites in this post, so you know. Don’t say I didn’t tell you~

For starters, I like parasites.  I have stated previous times that I’m a microbiology buff and I like all these creepy and crawly. Parasites are not exempt from this list of things that I enjoy. I have taken a Parasitology class and will be taking another one this coming semester…which, needless to say, I’m pumped about. I can’t explain my fascination with these strange creatures. I guess it’s because I like the unusual and “gross”. So, i decided that I’d blog about parasites for today. Now, parasites always get a bad rep. YES, they can be harmful to both humans and your favorite pet. But, they’re not always that bad. Just a lot of the time. So that’s not too bad right? 😉 That thought has inspired this blog post. You’ll see parasites at their best, their worst and most interesting. Since I have SO much information to cover…I’ll do it in three installments. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them in the comments section! Now, Let’s proceed shall we?

~The Good~ aka, some reasons why they’re not THAT bad.

Reason 1: Parasites might cure autoimmune diseases. (Which is of interest to ME because I suffer from one…not that I feel I would ever use them in this way. :P)

In recent years, scientists have discovered that certain parasites have the ability to interfere with autoimmune diseases. For those who aren’t familiar with autoimmune diseases…think Crohns Disease, or a myositis…or inflammatory bowel syndrome. To be very short it’s a disease resulting arise from an inappropriate immune response of the body against substances and tissues normally present in the body. In other words, the immune system mistakes some part of the body as a pathogen and attacks its own cells. In my case, I have polymyositis. It’s an autoimmune disease where my immune system attacked my muscles as if it were a foreign invader…thus causing my muscles to become inflammed and then weakened significantly.The treatment of autoimmune diseases (at the moment…) is typically with immunosuppresion—medication which decreases the immune response.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that just anyone should go out and intentionally infect themselves with stomach worms as opposed to the current medicine available. That’s a terrible idea. But in some select cases where the benefits outweigh the costs, getting a parasite is a legitimate source of medicine.

One of the people involved in this type of parasite therapy research is gastroenterologist Joel Weinstock, who had a revelation of sorts when exploring the question of why diseases, from asthma to multiple sclerosis, are on the rise in developed countries but not in undeveloped parts of the world. Weinstock discovered a possible answer: our favorite friend, the parasite.

Weinstock’s theory — which is still being tested and has yet to been proven fully — is that there’s a direct correlation between a lack of intestinal worms and a rise in autoimmune diseases. In developed countries like the United States we’ve done an excellent job — some would say too good a job — avoiding parasitic worms, but we may be paying the price in the form of other, even more harmful diseases. We’re “too clean”, so to speak. Especially when you consider how most people, especially in the United States, feel about parasites.

Weinstock, in the early 1990s, noticed how prevalent inflammatory bowel disease had become in North America. At the same time, he realized that parasitic worms, or helminths, have a unique effect on their human hosts. Instead of inducing inflammation (the body’s normal response to invasion), they actually calm the immune system. According to the theory, because people have lived with helminths through much of history, the human immune system has evolved to fight them, and when worms are removed entirely, the body’s immune system turns against itself. Helminthic therapy, or worm therapy, may emerge as a legitimate field of medicine, but it’s still very new and few studies have been done to date. So, there’s no telling what more will come from this type of research. Who knows, maybe that could lead to (or be the) cure to autoimmune diseases. People who suffer from them, like me, can only hope. I can’t say if I’d be the first to jump the gun and TRY out a treatment like that…but if there was enough backing by scientific evidence AND (of course) test trials…I would be willing 😛

For more Information:

Reason 2: Parasites could potentially cure allergies.

Some intestinal worms are also believed to cure allergies, which share some notable characteristics with autoimmune diseases. Some people claim that our old friend the hookworm has the ability to cure everything from allergies to hay fever to asthma — but your allergies would have to be REALLY bad to knowingly infect yourself with blood-sucking worms. Though, I personally think that’s kinda cool…but I’m weird like that. A lovely gentleman named Jasper Lawrence made worm therapy for allergies famous a few years ago. Suffering from debilitating allergies and asthma, Lawrence heard about the theory that hookworms could cure allergies, so he traveled to Africa and walked around with his shoes off in several open-air latrines. After successfully contracting hookworms (and probably a lot of other things), Lawrence reported that his allergies had subsided, and he recently told the public radio program Radiolab that he hasn’t had an asthma attack or allergy symptoms since his visit to Africa. What to make of this? I wouldn’t put everything behind this JUST yet…but it’s something to think about, at least.

Unfortunately, the rest of this story doesn’t end all that well.

Convinced that hookworms are the answer to the world’s allergies and asthma, Lawrence — who isn’t a doctor — returned to North America and began shipping orders of hookworms to allergy sufferers, delivered in the form of a patch, for about $3,000 per treatment. But when the FDA caught wind of Lawrence’s little side project, he fled to Mexico and then flew to England, where he was born. Oops? I guess that wasn’t the brightest idea, bro.

Regardless, the underlying fact is that intestinal worms might provide important clues about how allergies work. Because of new research, as well as personal stories like Jasper’s, the hygiene theory, — which states that cleanliness and the lack of childhood exposure to bacteria and parasites leads to increased incidents of allergies and autoimmune diseases — is gaining wider acceptance. Several different studies are currently underway to look at how parasites like hookworms might be able to cure allergies and asthma, but nobody has definitively proven that hookworms are the answer. So again, we’ll have to see what happens in the future…if anything, that is.

Now. I hope that after reading this, you have a better appreciation for our darling little parasite friends. If not, I did try~ Now, next week, I will talk about the easiest portion of my “parasite chatter”…the bad. For every one good thing, there seems to be 10 ways parasites can screw with you 😛 Either way, I’ll see you then!