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Cat poop parasite may alter human brains to reduce fear, study finds

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The bravery needed to start that business might be buried in a cat’s litter box. A parasite found in cat feces may alter human minds to make us less fearful, a new study has found.

The parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, infects an estimated 2 billion people worldwide. It also appears to shift the behavior of rodents, making them unafraid of cats. University of Colorado researchers theorized the bug may affect humans similarly, making them more open to risk — in business, for example.

While more research is needed, they did find correlations: People at entrepreneurial events who carried the parasite were nearly twice as likely as other attendees to have started their own businesses, while college students who picked up the bug were 1.4 times more likely to major in business.

The study, lead by associate professor Stefanie Johnson, was published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

T. gondii has been tied to increased risks of “car accidents, mental illness, neuroticism, drug abuse and suicide,” the researchers wrote, according to NBC News. Past studies suggest it alters brain chemistry and behavior, particularly around dopamine, the chemical linked to pleasure. 

More than 60 million people in the United States may carry the parasite, the Centers for Disease Control said, often after contact with raw meat or cat feces. It’s often unnoticeable, as human immune systems usually ward off symptoms. 

In rodents with the parasite, the lack of fear around cats makes them more likely to be eaten. That works out well for the parasite, which reproduces once inside the cat.

So what it might it do in humans? Researchers tested about 1,500 students and about 200 attendees of entrepreneurial events to find whether they had carried T. gondii. Twenty-two percent tested positive in all, NBC News notes.

Researchers also dove into databases from 42 different countries, per Sky News. Comparing infection data with entrepreneurial activity, they concluded that “infection prevalence was a consistent, positive predictor of entrepreneurial activity” at the national level.

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