How a parasite from cat poop can reduce your fear and maybe make you an entrepreneur

How a parasite from cat poop can reduce your fear and maybe make you an entrepreneur
Posted at 10:21 AM, Jul 29, 2018

Been wanting to run your own business but too afraid of failure to try? Maybe cat poop can give you the push you need.

Hold on, hear us out on this one.

A new study released this week links a parasite that comes from cat feces with the lack of fear and increased risk-taking behaviors commonly found among entrepreneurs.

Humans can become infected by the parasite, known as Toxoplasma gondii, if they come into direct contact with cat feces or things contaminated by it, Dr. Stefanie K. Johnson, the lead researcher of the study, told CNN. The study was published Wednesday by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Infected people usually don't have any symptoms from a toxoplasma infection, other than feeling like they've got the flu. But it stays in your body indefinitely and often in a surprising place.

"The most common place it likes to go is in your brain," said Johnson, an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado Boulder's Leeds School of Business. "There's a lot of us walking around with this in our brain."

An estimated 2 billion people around the world have been infected by the parasite, the study says.

So what effect could a toxoplasma infection have on behavior? Well in mice, the infection makes them less afraid of the smell of cat urine, and thus less afraid of cats. There's a similar risk-taking effect in humans. Johnson said infected people have been associated with road rage incidents, suicide and even schizophrenia. And people who died "in a risky way" were more likely to have had the toxoplasma infection, she said.

Other researchers have found similar links. A 2007 study by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a research psychiatrist at the Stanley Medical Research Institute, found that people with schizophrenia were 2.7 times more likely to have antibodies against the parasite -- which indicate that someone has been infected -- than healthy people. And a 2015 study by Torrey and his colleagues found that adults who had schizophrenia were more likely to have grown up in homes that had cats.

Other research suggests toxoplasma helps increase the production of substances like dopamine and testosterone in the body. Dopamine is a chemical your brain releases when you experience or anticipate pleasure or a reward, while testosterone is a hormone that stimulates the development of male sex organs, but it also can increase bouts of risky and aggressive behavior.

"You might feel invincible" with increased levels of those substances in your body, Johnson said, or at the very least have a little less fear.

How the study was done

Johnson and her team collected saliva samples over a five-year period from business and biology students to find those who tested positive for exposure to Toxoplasma gondii. They also asked the business students what their area of emphasis was.

This research revealed that business majors were 1.4 times more likely to have the infection than non-business students. And of the business students who tested positive for Toxoplasma gondii, they were 1.7 times more likely to have a management or entrepreneurship emphasis than other business-related emphases.

The researchers studied business professionals too, analyzing saliva samples collected at entrepreneurship events. They found that professionals who tested positive were 1.8 times more likely to have started their own business or company compared to other professionals who attended the events.

They looked at global data and found the same relationship.

"Countries with higher level of toxoplasma had higher levels of entrepreneurship," Johnson said.

Do we control our behavior?

The research made Johnson wonder about just how much control we really have over our own behavior.

"It's just surprising. I like to think that the decisions that I make are all decisions that I have control over. But in reality it seems that our decisions can be influenced by just one parasite. There's got to be many, many more," she said. "There's this entire community living within our bodies. A whole ecosystem that can be affecting you. I think that's exciting."

Johnson said the team's research brings up other questions that she'd like to get answered with further study. Like what happens to the businesses that are created by people with toxoplasma. Do they last longer? Do they on average outperform other businesses? Would the business have been created at all if the person didn't have toxoplasma?

She also said toxoplasma's effect on a person might be different if the infection comes from some other source, like eating contaminated meat, as opposed to getting it directly from cat feces. But that too needs more study. Finally, Johnson said she wants to study if toxoplasma has any effect on whether a person becomes more conservative or liberal in their political leanings.