Brain Altering Parasites

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Jonathan Cooke

Fans of The Last of Us might be familiar with brain-altering parasites. These little critters and fungi are slowly creeping into the popular imagination thanks in part to media using them as the instigator of the ever-popular zombie apocalypse genre. The ‘bad guy’ of choice in The Last of Us is the parasite Cordyceps; a fungus that is represented by multiple species which ‘zombify’ their hosts, turning them into vessels for their reproduction.

Fortunately for you, Cordyceps; or more precisely Ophiocordyceps only prey on tiny insects found on the forest floor. In fact, they are quite an effective pest control, helping to keep insect populations in check.

Generally, whether or not the parasite kills their host, it will manipulate the host into a situation that is more advantageous for the parasite. For instance, if the current host is merely an intermediary for the parasite can reach their final host they will manipulate the current host’s behaviour to make it more likely they will come into contact with the final host.

Such parasites include the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii; which infect rodents, but reproduce in cats, alter the behaviour of their rodent hosts. Several behavioural experiments have found that rats infected by the parasite are much more likely to take risks than their non-infected counter-parts. This leaves them more susceptible to eaten by their feline predators, thereby continuing the parasites lifecycle.

These behavioural changes are usually brought about by manipulating the hosts brain chemistry, either increasing or decreasing the brains response to signals it is receiving. In the case of the rodents, T.gondii ‘makes’ encourages risk-taking behaviour by ignoring environmental stimuli that work to make them dive for cover, such as the scent of cats. In several experiments that exposed rats to the smell of various different organisms, rats infected with T.gondii tended to frequent areas that smelled of cats and were not scared of cats when they were in the area. This is part of the parasite’s ‘extended phenotype’; where the behaviour of the host changes to maximise the survival chances of the parasites genes.

Again and again these manipulations have been observed in the animal kingdom (although for the most part the actual mechanisms are not fully understood, I should know, I wrote my dissertation on it) but what if they do affect humans?

Are humans manipulated in the same way that others are, to benefit those organisms that are so much smaller than us?

Humans are parasitized by many different organisms, tapeworms being a well-known example. However, most parasites we know steal nutrients from the food we eat, or feed off us directly, like ticks. In both cases, they don’t kill us, and don’t need to do something as energy consuming as manipulating their host’s behaviour.

Manipulating your host’s behaviour typically indicates that you want your host to move somewhere or do something that would be out of the ordinary for them; but is advantageous for you as the parasite, e.g. in the case with Cordyceps, which want their spores to be better distributed, or you want your host to be eaten, such as with T.gondii.

Neither of those strategies would be viable in humans. We don’t tend to get eaten by other organisms until we die naturally and unless the parasite only breeds around beach resorts in Tenerife, there’s not much point in changing our behaviour.

So, what if it’s accidental? What if we get infected by something were not supposed to? How might a parasite, not realising its reached a reproductive dead-end, affect us? Well ever since humanity has been looking after our feline friends we’ve run the risk of accidental infection by T.gondii, although no one is quite clear as what this infection might do to us. Infection rates vary widely across the country and for the vast majority of the population infection is completely asymptomatic, though infection can also trigger toxoplasmosis which can have lethal consequences.

Some observational evidence from studies, seem to suggest that infection has a demonstrable effect on the behaviour of those who have picked up the parasite, although the consequences do differ between males and females. Women seemingly become more intelligent, affectionate, and more likely to follow rules, whilst men tend to mellow out, becoming more loyal and mild-tempered when compared against other males.

The only trait that those who are infected share across both genders is a higher level of neuroticism, being more likely to blame themselves for problems in their lives and to have a high sense of insecurity.

However, these correlations are just that – correlations. No work has been done to prove that T.gondii is what is causing these behavioural changes in people – if they are changes at all.

Perhaps the reverse is happening; those of us with these traits are more prone to getting infected. Very little work – for obvious ethical reasons – has been done to see T.gondii interacts with the human body. However, perhaps we can take small pleasure in the idea that it is going to be convincing us to get eaten by lions anytime soon.

Behaviour altering parasites is a new, emerging field in biology; its effects are rarely documented and even more rarely understood in how they work. For many years, however, there has been a fundamental view that humans are not affected by such parasites and that we are apart from the animal kingdom in this regard.

Perhaps it’s time we address this view?

The ‘Tetris Effect’

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Jess Jarvis

Tetris – a game we’ve all played at some point throughout our childhood. A frustratingly addictive, yet somewhat simplistic game, involving aligning falling blocks in horizontal lines, to gain points.

But whom would’ve thought that a game which stamped out hours of our summer holiday boredom, could hold such valuable, therapeutic properties?

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The BBC reported recently that Tetris may actually be beneficial to our physical and mental health. Helping to ease patient suffering in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), curb cravings for addictive substances and even treat lazy eyes!

Scientists have suggested that it is the captivating and immersive ease of playing Tetris which ‘makes it potentially powerful as a therapeutic tool’.

Prof. Emily Holmes, a previous visiting professor in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, has spent many years of her career studying the potential use and effectiveness of Tetris in therapy and medicine. She suggests that it is the visual aspect of Tetris that makes it so absorbing. Unlike other games, the diversity in colour, shape and movement taps into the visual memory. The ‘Tetris Effect’ can be so intense, that people often report seeing the ‘falling blocks in their thoughts and dreams’ after playing.

Easing Suffering in PTSD

Prof. Holmes and her colleagues published a study in 2017, which showed how intrusive memories and ‘flashbacks’ – characteristic of PTSD – could be significantly reduced by playing Tetris. This study was one of the first to look at the use of Tetris as a therapeutic intervention. It suggested that the high ‘visuospatial demands’ of Tetris occupied the sensory elements of memory, preventing the consolidation of traumatic memories in the mind.

6 hours following a motor vehicle trauma, participants were delivered either a control intervention (writing a log for 20 minutes) or a Tetris intervention (20 minutes of game play). A week later, compared to the control group, those whom had played Tetris were significantly less affected by intrusive memories. Furthermore, their incidence of intrusions was significantly lower too!

From analysing previous research, Tetris seems to be the only game which has a positive effect on preventing intrusive memories following trauma. Not only is the intervention extremely effective, it is also very simple and helpful for people to use. It is low in intensity and the game itself, creates minimal distress. It reduces the symptoms of PTSD, whilst still allowing the ability to make sense of the event.

Further studies with more participants could show whether Tetris might have a real impact on the quality of life for sufferers following trauma. This research is only in the early stages though, and has a long way to go before it can be implemented into clinical situations.

Curbing Addiction and Cravings

Scientists from Plymouth University and Queensland University of Technology, have said playing Tetris can also help control cravings for addictive substances.

31 students took part in this experience sampling study. They were sent text messages throughout the day which asked them to rate their current level of cravings for drugs (e.g. cigarettes), food and drink (e.g. coffee, alcohol), and activities such as exercise and sex.

Half of the students were given a device to play short games of Tetris throughout the day. This mini intervention showed Tetris to have an effect, whereby cravings reduced more in those who played the game.

Prof. Jackie Andrade believes Tetris has an effect on curbing addictive cravings, because cravings involve imagining an intense experience of indulging in the use of a particular substance. Therefore, the demanding nature of Tetris on the sensory mental processes in the brain, makes it extremely difficult to imagine cravings vividly and make sense of them, whilst playing Tetris at the same time.

Treating a Lazy eye (Amblyopia)

Dr. Robert Hess, from McGill University in Canada (2013), completed a small study to see whether Tetris could help treat a condition known as lazy eye or amblyopia.

Previous treatments have only focused on retraining the ‘lazy eye’ alone. In the past doctors had recommended “covering the “good” eye with a patch to make the “lazy” one work harder.”

However, it became apparent to the researchers that the only way to help solve amblyopia was to solve the disruption to binocular vision and encourage the two eyes to work together.

Dr. Robert Hess, used headset-video goggles to display an adapted version of Tetris. Through these goggles Tetris was displayed dichoptically, ‘where one eye was allowed to see only the falling objects, and the other eye was allowed to see only the ground plane objects.’ This adaptation required the eyes to work simultaneously.

Results showed half of the participants played regular Tetris with the stronger eye patched up, while the other half of the participants played the adapted game with both eyes open. At the end of the study both groups improved, but those who used both eyes and played the game through the headset, showed a dramatic improvement.

Many people play Tetris just to pass the time. However, it seems as though Tetris may have therapeutic benefits; showing an amazing and captivating effect on the mental and physical processes in the body and enabling interventions for many kinds of disorders and conditions.

 

Questions of Consciousness

Harpreet Thandi

Consciousness is very deep and a very important aspect of life. It is very mystical and opens us a whole new area in understanding the complexity of the human mind. This fascinating new area in neuroscience is answering questions as it terms out to be connected to biology and not just a vague concept. These are as follows:

What are the critical brain regions for consciousness?

There are approximately 90 billion neurons that make up the human brain, with thousands more connections between them. This is not the complete picture as a high number of neurons does not correspond to consciousness.

Current thinking is that consciousness is primarily linked to the specific network of regions in the cortex (all the folded parts) and secondly the thalamus (a walnut-shaped structure deep inside). This can determine types of consciousness; being awake, dreamless sleep or the involvement in each experience.

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This also leads to new areas of research such as the brain’s densely connected frontal lobes, and questions about how valuable the information that travels between different regions of the brain really is.

What are the mechanisms of general anaesthesia?

There are many methods to induce general anaesthesia, including substances such as propofol – which can cause severe reactions in some people. The current evidence is that anaesthesia alters how different parts of the brain interact with each other (as mentioned in question 1). This creates an effect where the brains parts get interfered with – starting what is described as a “cognitive unbinding” process.

The goal is to understand how general anaesthesia is compared to unconsciousness-like dreamless sleep in the brain.

What is self?

This is a very fundamental concept – what it means to be us. The ‘I’ behind the eye. Our thoughts, words, actions, perspective, psychology, past, present, and future to name a few subjective aspects. These are all changed by the processes inside the brain. Which is a very scary idea that chemicals change and can modify our inner workings.

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An out of body spiritual experience can be replicated by various experimental factors. The aim is to understand this ‘I’ idea to be able to combat psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia. Which is a very exciting prospect for the future breaking down the meaning of self.

What determines experiences of volition and ‘will’?

Another interesting concept that verges into philosophy is this idea of “free will” or freedoms and their existence. This idea has been the topic of discussion since the 1980s. After looking for neural signatures of volition (the intention of action) and agency (experience of causing action).

The new school of thought is that volition does not exist and very clear actions involve the entire brain. This acts as a complete complex map of networks that conducts open decisions between different parts of the brain-an undivided system.

What is the function of consciousness? What are experiences for?

A large variety of cognitive functions, environmental perception, decision making and even voluntary actions can be carried out without consciousness.

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The key distinction is that consciousness can integrate information. This means from our life experiences a large amount of possibilities are removed. This changes the levels of functions that can be carried out with consciousness.

How rich is consciousness?

A big issue is that consciousness is almost subjective. Especially because, as previously mentioned, once you experience something then there is also a “self” bias. The current research reflects this limitation. The evidence leads to separating the effects on the brain of consciousness and our self-involvement. Emphasis is made to explore the interplay between these factors to deepen our understanding.

Are other animals conscious?

This is a very deep question that is very profound. Mammals have a lot of similar brain functions to a human, they carry out functions, and this helps us ask this very logical question.

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An animal’s consciousness is very different to a human as they don’t have the same concept of self as humans. However, there are distinctions in this level such as in birds and cephalopods, like an octopus, which are very smart with a high capacity of learning.  

Are vegetative patients conscious?

In the US alone 15,000 patients are in a ‘vegetative state’, from a huge brain injury. In this state the patient’s behaviour shows that these patients are awake but not aware.  From brain imaging, at least some of these patients are conscious, and even engaged in communication with their families and doctors. The next step is to diagnose and treat these patients.

These are just a few questions in current research in the neuroscience of consciousness. This field will start to shed some new light on areas within the vast areas of still unknown fundamental questions.

 

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On Good and Evil

Rowan Jaines

The concept of evil is often understood to be the polar opposite of being morally good. Marcus Singer referred to the term “evil” as the worst possible term of criticism imaginable. He argued that evil is a human phenomenon since evil deeds must flow from the will to do something evil. In other words, Singer claims that if only humans are moral agents, then it must follow that only humans can perform acts of evil.

Perhaps because of the way in which morality has been entwined with religion and superstition over history, there are branches of thought that state that concept of evil is problematic due to its association with dark spirits and its subsequent denial of explanatory and contextualising factors. Critics of the concept of evil see this denial as dangerous when used in moral, political and legal contexts.

Some, however, believe the term evil is very useful and important in understanding the human world. Back in 2006, Philip Zimbardo, of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, claimed that “it’s time we [psychologists] asked the big questions like the nature of evil.”. In his famous talk, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, he claimed that the right conditions, often conditions designed to elicit obedience as we see in military situations, can create the potential for evil actions in any and all human beings.

The debate over whether evil is something some are born with or a potential we all have within us has raged through the centuries, however, in the early 1990’s the murder of two-year-old James Bulger rendered that question newsworthy.

In 1993, two-year-old James Bulger was led away from a shopping centre by two ten-year-old boys Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who proceeded to torture and murder him. Bulger suffered so many injuries that none could be isolated as the fatal blow. Terry Eagleton, critical theorist, uses the Bulger case as a way to illustrate our contradictory thinking with regards the nature of evil in his book On Evil.  Like Zimbardo, Eagleton is firm that evil does exist, following Augustine and Aquinas in seeing evil as an “absence” rather than any kind of object.

Both boys in the Bulger case came from difficult backgrounds. Thompson’s mother was an alcoholic who frequently left her seven children alone at home, whilst Venables’ mother suffered from severe depression and repeatedly hit him. Accounts state he was afraid of her, arranging his toys on his bed for protection. It’s very common for those who commit unspeakable crimes to have had abusive and neglectful childhoods, but how can we understand this when equally some who have had loving childhoods still commit unspeakable acts?

It may be a question of empathy. Although for most people the development of empathy is something that begins in infanthood, both developmental trauma and genetic abnormalities can mean that a person develops into adulthood with a lack of empathy. The ability to imagine another person’s experience is a cornerstone of what we imagine it is to be human and takes a central role in much of our moral coding. This makes more sense of Singer’s claim that evil is the worst insult one can level at another person, since the will to perform an evil act indicates a lack of humanity. This also dovetails with Zimbardo’s argument. His examples of conditions which are seen to encourage acts of evil are all conditions where people are stripped of their individuality and their humanity.

It makes sense to consider that although we all have the capability to make moral choices, making a socially responsible decision may be more difficult for people with genetic or developmental barriers to empathy. Considering the concept of evil in light of all we have learnt in modern neuroscience, more shades of grey appear and allow us to develop a more subtle and nuanced understanding of phenomena that previously we needed strong terms such as “evil” to describe. Here we have an excellent example of the power that modern science has in transforming age old moral debates and hopefully allowing us to develop more empathy even towards those who have performed “evil” atrocities in order to understand and grow as a species.