Thursday, May 31, 2018

Cognitive Manipulation by parasites

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Parasite-host interactions have been perfected over millions of years of evolution and reached surprising and even unnerving preciosity. The diversity of parasites that can manipulate behavior ranges from viruses to worms and also includes other, parasitic insects.  In some of the most fascinating manipulations, the parasite taps into the host brain neuronal circuits to manipulate hosts cognitive functions. To exert long-term behavioral manipulation of the host, the parasite must secrete compounds that can modify gene expression to produce long-lasting effects. This way parasites alter the behavior of their host by the hijacking of their ability to make decisions. Mind-altering manipulation can occur in practically all animals, but it is most frequent and most studied in insects. Insects are capable of making a choice and carry out goal-directed behavior in a dynamic environment. For example, when presented with two very near concentrations of the same odor, fruit flies take longer to make a decision and can make mistakes. 


Suicide manipulation: 

Insect behavior can be manipulated by a fungus infection. After infecting the ant, fungal filaments feed on the host’s organs, avoiding, however, vital ones. The fungi produce chemicals that alter the navigational sense of their ant hosts, causing the ant to climb to the top of a tree or plant and clamp its mandibles around a leaf or leaf stem to stay in place, a behavior that has never been reported for uninfected ants. When the fungus is ready to produce spores, it eventually feeds on the ant’s brain and thus kills it. The spores explode and spread from the top of the tree to infect other ants and start another cycle.

In another example of parasitic infection, the Lancet liver fluke takes over the ant’s navigational skills by migrating to the ant’s head and settling near one of the cerebral ganglia. The ant is directed to climb to the tip of a blade of grass, where it is eaten by a grazing animal. The mature Lancet expels its eggs via the digesting system, allowing ants to be infected. Crickets and other terrestrial insects can fall victim to hairworms, which develop inside their bodies and lead them to commit suicide in water, enabling the exit of the parasite into an aquatic environment favorable to its reproduction.


Offspring Care:

Although solitary insects are not known to provide care and safety to their offspring, one of the most fascinating behavioral manipulations of parasites is to coerce a host to care for the parasite’s offspring. For example, a wasp sting injects her eggs into a caterpillar. The wasp larvae mature by feeding on the host and emerge after two weeks. However, one or two larvae remain within the caterpillar. While their siblings turn to pupae, the remainder siblings activate the caterpillar muscles to move its upper body back and forth violently. The behavior protects the pupates by deterring predators.

The aggressive behavior of the caterpillar toward intruders is a guarding behavior that can be triggered in other insects also and even without any parasite in the host’s body. A single wasp larva develops inside the body of a ladybug and it spins a cocoon between its legs. The ladybug is alive, but its programming triggers twitching and convoluting body movements, which keep the wasp pupa safe from potential predators. It is thought that the parasite co-infests with a virus, which induces a severe neuropathy and antiviral immune response that correlates with the symptoms characterizing the motor twitches. The sophistication and effectiveness of parasite infection might have spurred the simulation hypothesis. 

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Consumption of raw fruits and vegetables might be beneficial for mental health





The old saying, “You are what you eat,” might need a new updating. A new study found that raw fruit and vegetable intake predicted reduced depressive symptoms and lead to higher positive mood, life satisfaction, and flourishing. The top 10 raw foods related to better mental health were carrots, bananas, apples, dark leafy greens like spinach, grapefruit, lettuce, citrus fruits, fresh berries, cucumber, and kiwifruit.


The study investigated the differential associations between intake of raw fruits and vegetables, compared to processed (cooked or canned) fruits and vegetables, and mental health in young adults. Fruits and vegetables contain a variety of micronutrients critical to physical and mental function. Antioxidants such as vitamin C and carotenoids might protect the body against oxidative stress. Water-soluble vitamins (vitamin C, and B vitamins), and certain minerals (calcium, magnesium, and zinc), are important for optimal cognitive and emotional functioning. Cooking and processing of fruits and vegetables diminish their nutrient levels, which may limit the delivery of critical vitamins and other food sources needed for optimal emotional functioning.

Picture credit: Fruit market by Diderot

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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Adopt a growth mindset by striving toward flexibility





From the Stone Age to the industrial revolution life conditions for the overwhelming majority of people were miserable; they suffered from a seasonal shortage of food, adverse temperatures, threats, and lack of proper housing. Social history, the pomp, the conquest, and the culture rode on the backs of oppressed classes. Religion was the mental comfort and deep-seated hope that gave meaning to life amid the grueling drudgery. 

Things cannot be more different at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In most parts of the world, food, clothing, and housing is a natural part of the human condition. In big, overstuffed, middle-class homes, out of season clothes are discarded like garbage. At the time when we achieved a never experienced prosperity, we are faced with an epidemic of addictions, alienation, crime, and abuse. Trying to understand the root causes of this seismic social change we need to analyze several factors that had transformed society. Compared to the rigid, impassable class division of yesteryear, social mobility is open to anyone with the drive to succeed. The news is full of examples of tech billionaires and executives who started from modest beginnings. However, the comparison with the proverbial Johnsons can make every member of the society left behind at one time or another. The news, social media, and the internet can serve as a constant reminder of our failure in the rat race. To justify our perceived ineptness, we manufacture imaginary and impassable obstacles to success; theories of unfairness, conspiracies, such as far right or far left political oppression, government or alien manipulations and excess to ‘connections,’ as excuses for inaction. Spending time on these emotionally demanding fantasies drains mental energies. It wastes not only precious time, but derails attention from personal well-being and career goals. The technological developments, financial complexities, and social changes demand meaningful decision making at every level. Maneuvering the stormy waters of change requires grooming our intellectual quotients. Occupation with gossip and unfounded fantasies leaves one stuck, while society is progressing at a breakneck pace. Being left behind by a progressing society creates increasing anxiety, which can easily culminate in depression, addictions and acts of desperation. We are the first generation to have the ability to analyze how our emotions influence our behavior. Certain aspects of our emotional inheritance can destroy the upcoming generation’s ability to succeed. The rigid mindset of the class system must be replaced by a strong belief in the ability of the self to initiate change.


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Picture credit: Mother and child by Eva Deli



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