Although the World Cup has concluded, those of you who haven't done so should read the amazing article in Slate by Stanford Neuroscience's own Patrick House. For those of you who live/work around Palo Alto, CA, Patrick is the tall gentleman with the massive head of curly hair who you will have noticed, perhaps out of the corner of your eye, sitting at Cafe Del Doge, or browsing at Feldman's Books. When he isn't cultivating his man-about-town image, Patrick studies Toxoplasma gondii in the lab of Robert Sapolsky.
Toxoplasma gondii is a single-celled parasite whose reproduction is dependent upon being located within the stomach of a cat. In order to get to this critical breeding ground, Toxo has developed an unusual strategy: excreted from the cats stomach in feces, Toxo is ingested by cat feces-munching rodents. Toxo then travels directly to the rodents' brains, where it alters brain function, making infected animals attracted to cat urine. Infected rodents seek out this newly attractive odor, whereupon a recently relieved cat eats them, returning the Toxo to the cat's stomach, where it can reproduce.
There has been recent discussions of how Toxo infection in humans might be influencing human behavior (see a recent Economist article, as well as research articles from the journals NeuroImmunoModulation and Folia Parasitologica). In his Slate article, Patrick takes a serious look at correlations between country-wide rates of Toxo infection, and success in the World Cup.
Landon Donovan Needs a Cat: Could a brain parasite found in cats help soccer teams win at the World Cup? by Patrick House for Slate