Sunday, July 04, 2010

IS THAT A WORM OR A MUTATION?

My first awareness of toxoplasmosis was at animal control when people were fussing about what could be caught from animals. Dr. Watt, our veterinarian, and I went out to the parks of Portland with little paper cornets (meant for snow cones and printed with the words “yum yum”) to collect animal excrement samples from the grass and the sand boxes. Unfortunately or fortunately, our first-hand research revealed nothing. The parks were remarkably worm free. But toxoplasmosis worms were too small for us to have found with our screening methods anyway. They only have one cell. I read about them and about how they are in cat feces and pregnant women should not empty cat boxes because the worms would migrate to the fetus and eat their eyes and brains.

In an adult person, nonpregnant, they just make cysts because the immune system attacks them and that was the end of it. Or so we thought. But I was a little uneasy when the equivalent of me, the education person for Seattle animal control, told me that her seven-year-old daughter had complained there was a shadow that kept going back and forth inside her eye. Sure enough, when the eye doctor looked in there, it was a toxo worm. But it died and was absorbed and that was that. Or so we thought.

Every time there’s a scientific advance that produces a wave of new information, theories form -- often too soon and unconfirmed by later research. The earliest genetic thinking led to the idea that some people are just hopeless. Two families, the Jukes and the Kalikaks, were held up as the kind of people who had inherited shiftlessness, burdening the welfare rolls. This info wave turned demonic in Germany where it was used to eliminate anyone who seemed faulty: the insane, the retarded, the handicapped, the gays, the gypsies and the Jews. Hopeless! Snuff them! Out of the crowded lifeboat! That thinking still persists, but there is a strong backlash against it.

The most recent amazing information has come from more sophisticated investigation into the genome, into human tissue molecular interaction, and into fMRI records of brain activity. Much of that has focused on trying to understand the troublesome and even criminal non-conformists among us. How are sociopaths created? What should we do about them? The more of us there are, the more packed-together we are, the more the motivation for controlling outliers.

So a recent three-part series on NPR has attracted a lot of attention. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127888976 Keying off research by James Fallon, an expert on the criminal brain who investigated his own family’s history, upbringing and MAO-A gene (monoamine oxidase A) nick-named the Warrior Gene by those researching serotonin. He discovered that he was the only one he measured who had two of the three characteristics of a criminal. He is lacking abuse/trauma, which it is believed activates serotonin malfunction. But apparently, except for being morbidly obese, he is a happily functioning professional. One fillip of this theory is that the Warrior Gene comes from the mother (without affecting her behavior) to her sons, but it was the mother who pointed out the history of violence now and then cropping out in the family.

The problem is what to do with this information. Should all criminals be run through an MRI? Should all military draftees be tested for serotonin functioning or screened for childhood abuse? Should killers be forgiven in part because of their genes? What a terrific fund of insult for those who enjoy family battles based on inheritance, as families do. “What can you expect from someone from . . .um, Greenland? Everyone knows they are frigid people!” Jukes and Kalikaks all over again. Many times it doesn’t key into violence but into prosperity. My mother hated it, but easily fell into sputtering at my father, “You TEUTON!” She occasionally flung at me, “You’re just like your father!” My riposte was, “What did you expect when you married him?

So, having found this lovely new source of measurement, I went around holding it up to relatives and friends, until Tim set me straight, soon joined by the counselor husband of a friend. First, it gives a false sense of reality to what is fantasy. Second. it is too easy to dispense with and punish those who are, shall we say, inconvenient by defining them as faulty. Third, it completely discounts the variables called “intent” and “free will” and “conscience.”

So I, smug in my belief that there was nothing wrong with MY genes (surely late onset blood glucose disfunction is environmental!), still wondered why among my relatives I’m such a daredevil, always jumping at the adventure instead of safety. Then I came to the research of Robert Sapolsky, who is quite slender but has hair somewhere between that of a Jewish patriarch and a Sixties hippie, and who speaks in a wonderfully vernacular way about highly technical matters. Early on he researched stress, but lately he’s turned to the effects of toxoplasmosis in the brain. http://nihrecord.od.nih.gov/newsletters/2009/03_20_2009/story4.htm

“Sapolsky and other researchers have found that the Toxoplasma genome includes a gene that can induce a host’s brain to create dopamine, the neurotransmitter most closely linked with feelings of pleasure or reward. The combined effects of reduced fear and stress and increased hedonism may account for a variety of behavioral abnormalities in rats as well as other mammals.” Like me. The enticing little story is that a rat infected with toxo will have its brain code altered in a way that converts the signal for fear to sexual desire. So when the rat smells cat pee, it is attracted. And when it meets the cat, it swoons instead of taking off. (No one says what effect toxo has on the cat’s brain.) But the suggestion is that human trauma due to recklessness is associated with toxo infection. This is quite different than the same worm making swiss cheese out of a fetal brain. A pathologist confided offhand to Sapolsky that many of the victims of motorcycle accidents he had autopsied had toxo infections.

This time I’m wary. But still . . . Our chief summer occupation when I was a kid was messing around in a sandbox. Nothing fancy. Just a board rectangle, some buckets of sand from along the Columbia River, and a lot of little plastic cowboys and Indians.





The neighborhood cats, of course, loved this sandbox which had no cover on it. It would cost me a couple of hundred bucks to find out whether I have toxoplasmosis antibodies, so I think I will just assume it is a sure thing. In fact, my animal control boss, Mike Burgwin, called a few nights ago to invite me to visit he and his wife near Seattle this summer. (I’m not going.) He remarked that I had seemed “afraid of nothing” -- actually, he said I had balls.

My mother, however, had a different explanation for my rebellious nature and tendency to get into trouble. She said it was because I had red hair. Her genetic theories dated back to the Thirties. Actually much earlier: maybe 1300 AD whenever it was that a mutation created red-headed people among the northern Europeans. They were soon stigmatized. Which made them lose patience a lot, which confirmed everyone's suspicions!

3 comments:

artemesia said...

Fascinating, Mary!

We played in dirt and sandboxes too.

bare838 said...

Oh.My.God. We were so prophetic as children!

The Worms Crawl In,
The Worms Crawl Out,
Into your stomach,
And out your mouth.

They eat your intestines,
They scramble your heart.
Now you feel like
You’re all apart.

This is how
It is to die
You end up looking
Like apple pie!

prairie mary said...

What happened to my fav line:

The worms play pinochle on your snout!

Prairie Mary