Implications Are Slightly Depressing but Interesting as (Like?) Hell!
We tested the hypothesis that the parasite Toxoplasma gondii manipulates the behaviour of its intermediate rat host in order to increase its chance of being predated by cats, its feline definitive host, thereby ensuring the completion of its life cycle. Here we report that, although rats have evolved anti-predator avoidance of areas with signs of cat presence, T. gondii’s manipulation appears to alter the rat’s perception of cat predation risk, in some cases turning their innate aversion into an imprudent attraction. The selectivity of such behavioural changes suggests that this ubiquitous parasite subtly alters the brain of its intermediate host to enhance predation rate whilst leaving other behavioural categories and general health intact. This is in contrast to the gross impediments frequently characteristic of many other host parasite systems. We discuss our results in terms of their potential implications both for the epidemiology of toxoplasmosis and the neurological basis of anxiety and cognitive processes in humans and other mammals.