Mind-Altering Parasite Makes People "More Attractive"


| LAST UPDATE 05/25/2022

By Stanley Wickens
toxoplasma gondii parasite appearance

Whenever we catch a cold or flu, some of its symptoms often tend to show in our appearances. "You don't look too well" is a pretty common expression to hear when you're not feeling well - but is that necessarily the case with every disease out there? A recent discovery about a parasite spread by cats may suggest otherwise.

This particular protozoan parasite goes by the name of T. gondii, and, according to research, you can catch it by being exposed to cat feces, contaminated food, or having intercourse with an infected person. But perhaps the most bizarre fact we know about it comes from a new study that claims having T. gondii may actually make you more attractive. In an experiment that included 213 participants, researchers found that infected men and women were considered "healthier and more attractive" than those who weren't infected by the parasite. And although it may sound like a pretty strange phenomenon at first, scientists claim that evolutionary biology may be able to explain it.

toxoplasma gondii parasite appearance
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According to a hypothesis posed by researchers, one of the neurobiological changes that T. gondii seems to be responsible for may actually help the parasite increase its chances of being transmitted to more people. "In one study, Toxoplasma-infected male rats were perceived as more sexually attractive and were preferred as sexual partners by non-infected females," explains the study, led by biologist Javier Borráz-León from the University of Turku in Finland. In other words, this parasite might benefit from manipulating our appearances to make us seem more attractive to others so that we're more likely to spread the infection.

So how exactly does this super-parasite do this? Researchers discovered that it decreased the fluctuating asymmetry of the infected participants' faces - making them appear healthier and more "beautiful." In women, the infection led to a lower body mass index and a higher self-perceived attractiveness. The infected male participants, on the other hand, were associated with higher levels of testosterone, which could lead to higher levels of risk-taking behavior. However, scientists say it could be that these participants could have already had high levels of the hormone, which may have increased their chances of catching the parasite. Either way, is being infected by T. gondii necessarily bad news? After this recent study, we'll bet a few people might not think so...

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