COMMENT: Cats have been our furry, purr-y companions for thousands of years. As cute as they may seem, they can also spread diseases to their human caretakers, such as ringworm, salmonella and cryptosporidium.

New research out this week has found that acquiring one of these cat parasites might actually be a positive thing, giving a competitive advantage in the business world.

Toxoplasma gondii is a brain parasite commonly found in cats. The parasite's eggs are usually transferred through cat faeces and are extremely resilient, with the ability to survive dormant for many months outside.

Humans can pick up the eggs either from touching the faeces directly or through eating vegetables that may have been in a field or garden used by cats.


As a zoonotic parasite, Toxoplasma gondii is capable of infecting a wide range of warm-blooded species, and once the parasite hatches inside the body, it lodges in the brain and helps to facilitate its own life cycle by affecting the behaviour of its host.

Scientists have shown that the parasite can reduce the innate fear of cats - or more specifically of cat urine - in rats and mice. This places them in greater danger of being eaten, which in turn helps the parasite transfer to a new host and continue on its life cycle.

Another study showed infected chimpanzees were more attracted to the smell of leopard urine – and with leopards being the main predator of chimpanzees one would assume the survival rate of infected chimps would not be very high.

Most of us probably don't even know that we are infected with Toxoplasma gondii, however the odds of being a parasite carrier in New Zealand are quite high.

One study of pregnant women in Auckland found that 33 per cent of them were infected, while another used New Zealand blood donor data to discover that over 50 per cent of its donors had been infected with the parasite.

Studies in humans have found that the parasite can manipulate 12 different types of olfactory receptors which are the neurons responsible for the detection of smells in our brains.

Other research has also linked the parasite to brain disorders including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and epilepsy, although scientists still aren't clear on the mechanism through which this happens.

In addition to brain diseases, research in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry linked the parasite to increased aggression in humans. They found participants who tested positive for Toxoplasma gondii were much more likely to have be diagnosed with the psychiatric condition intermittent explosive disorder (IED) or another psychiatric disorder such as schizophrenia.

Anyone who has watched the Wolf of Wall Street or read Elon Musk's tweets recently knows that traits including increased aggression, lack of fear and an attraction to high-risk, high-reward activities are also seen in entrepreneurs in the business world.


Wondering if there was a link, scientists tested the saliva of 1500 students and found those who tested positive for Toxoplasma gondii were almost twice as likely to be studying business at university with an emphasis on management and entrepreneurship.

They then tested the saliva of more than 200 business professionals from 42 countries, and found those powered by the parasite were almost twice as likely to have started their own business than those without the parasite.

Although the research, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B this week, shows correlation, it doesn't necessarily show causation and should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

For those of you with pet friendly offices, however, perhaps bringing your cat to work with you might be the business boost (or fun science experiment) that you have been looking for.

Dr Michelle Dickinson, creator of Nanogirl, is a nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science and engineering. Tweet her your science questions @medickinson