CALIFORNIA - In 2012, the Czech evolutionary biologist Jaroslav Flegr made headlines for his claim that the parasite Toxoplasma gondii was influencing the way we think and behave.
Since the publication, researchers of the Stanley Medical Research Institute and the John Hopkins University School of Medicine have been investigating the link between T.gondii and schizophrenia.
As terrifying as these discoveries have been, the surprise came earlier this week when microbiologist, Professor Richard J. Hansen, published his study in the Journal of Current Biology.
Professor Hansen, the leading researcher in host-microbe interactions at the University of California, Berkeley, shocked the nation when he published his study illustrating the link between Toxoplasma gondii and Christianity.
Within hours of the study being published, outrage erupted from the Christian community.
As of the printing of this report, the Islamic community has remained silent, presumably because the research did not implicate the Muslim community as infected by the parasite.
Toxoplasma gondii has typically been known to infect cats and has gained notoriety over this past decade for its remarkable ability to move from one host to the next by infecting rats.
Once a rat ingests the parasite, it becomes infectious and travels through the wall of the intestine. The parasite is then carried by the blood to other tissues including the central nervous system.
T.gondii hijacks the brain, and the rat, who characteristically feared the smell of cat urine, becomes a 'feline seeking missile.'
Evidence suggests that T.gondii has the rat believe it's sexually attracted to the cat odor.
During a press conference Monday, Hansen shared what provoked his research:
"When I first read the study by Flegr, I wasn't surprised. It would be ridiculous to think that humans were the only warm blooded mammalian species immune to parasitic manipulation. What got my attention was the radical transformation the rat underwent as a result of the parasitic infection. 'The urine, which the rat inherently feared, had become the object of its greatest desire.'"
"Immediately," Hansen continued, "I recalled of the Biblical account of Saul's conversion."
Hansen, to the ridicule of other scientist's in his field, is a professed Christian.
"One moment we have a man who hated the early Christians with such zeal as to have them put to death, and then almost instantaneously while traversing the road to Damascus, he becomes the most fervent advocate for the risen Lord. 'The thing he once hated, he now loved.'" Hansen smiled, and a slight chuckle could be heard around the room; although a brilliant flash of insight is not something to be laughed at.
Isaac Newton's apple is a notable example.
The young Newton is sitting in his garden when an apple falls on his head; in a sudden stroke of insight, he developed his theory of gravity.
"For some time," Hansen continued, "I've know that my spiritual beliefs could not be resolved with what we know about our world, but I was unable to shake the experience I had as a Christian. Similar to the apple's effect on Newton, Flegr's study suddenly clarified the entire Christian issue to me."
Hansen theorized since T.gondii had already been observed to perform surgical-like alterations in a rodent's brain while simultaneously causing behavioural modifications, then a similar outcome might be achieved in humans.
T.gondii performs these alterations in rats to increase the chance of it being eating by a cat, as the parasite can only sexually reproduce in a cat's digestive system. The changes only affect the rat's fear of cats leaving all other areas of the rodent's behaviour unaffected.
Similar manipulations have been observed with other parasites such as The Lancet liver fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum, which can only reproduce in the liver of a cow, and uses an ant host to complete its reproductive cycle.
Once D.dendriticum, is excreted from the cow and ingested by an ant, the parasite executes a series of precise alterations causing the ant to climb a blade of grass in order to increase the likelihood of being consumed by a grazing animal.
The ant will perch itself atop the blade of grass all night, but if it hasn't been ingested by morning, the parasite releases its command over the insect in order to allow the ant to carry out the routine of a normal day. D.dendriticum does this out of necessary survival - in order to avoid being baked alive in the heat of the day's sun. At dusk, the parasite resumes control and the ant resumes its position perched atop a blade of grass.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of all humans carry Toxoplasma gondii.
In a Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project report published late last year, the world Christian population was 2,168,330,00. At that time, the global population was recorded at 6.9 billion, indicating the percentage of the world's population that is Christian at 31.4%, or approximately a third of all human beings.
Before Hansen could begin his study he needed to confirm religious adherents were infected by Toxoplasma gondii. In the United States it is estimated that 1 in 4 persons carry the parasite, so this initial probe would not confirm his theory, but serve to confirm the need for further investigation.
Hansen's first study was limited to 32 people, members of the Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, in Richmond California. T.gondii can be detected by a simple blood test. The results were encouraging; all 32 volunteers tested positive for the parasite.
Hansen expanded his research to include: 408 Catholics, 610 Muslims, 107 Hindus, 1003 Jews, and 230 Protestant Christians.
Hansen had incorrectly hypothesized all religious adherence was a symptom of parasitic manipulation.
His experiment revealed that only the individuals adhering to either Catholicism or Christianity tested positive for T.gondii. Further investigation would clarify results. T.gondii infects humans in multiple ways including eating raw or undercooked meat containing the parasite in tissue cysts - usually pork.
Once infected, and in order to begin its reconstruction of the brain cells, Toxoplasma gondii must first find its way to the host's brain. To accomplish this task, T.gondii employs white blood cells to serve as transportation. This is a bold move as white blood cells are normally the primary defence against foreign pathogens. While on route to the brain, the parasite begins to divide asexually in order to advance its spread throughout the host body. Although not yet completely understood, it is presumed that T.gondii is aware that it has infected a "dead-end" host - as the parasite can only sexually reproduce in the stomach of a cat - and performs this act of asexual reproduction to be capable of being shed from its human host in a strategic move to find its way back into a cat's digestive system.
"From an evolutionary standpoint, we don't know why T.gondii hijacks the human brain, we just know that it does," Hansen stated. "The advantage has not yet been discovered."
When T.gondii completes its migration to the brain it settles as a cyst in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, or PFC, is located at the front of the brain underneath the forehead. The PFC is the most evolved portion of the brain and is the area where critical thinking skills originate.
To the educated person, religious beliefs have always been beyond the scope of rational discourse with their adherents impossible to take seriously. Experts have long considered religiosity to be a mental disorder.
The association of Toxoplasmsa gondii with mental disorder has been well documented in over 50 published studies.
Hansen, who also tested positive for T.gondii, conducted the next phase of research on himself. An MRI discovered an enrichment of parasitic cysts in the limbic system at the prefrontal cortex.
The T.gondii cysts serve at a control center for the parasite, where it overrides the host's most basic cognitive functions.
In the rat we observed how its survival skills were overridden; in humans we observe a similar phenomenon with religious adherence equal to the death of the mind.
"Magnetic resonance imaging revealed parasitic cysts in my brain," Hansen said. "They were located near the prefrontal cortex and, in theory, could have been interfering with my abstracting ability."
Hansen recalled a study published in the American Journal of Pathology where it suggested the possibility of developing a vaccine that would eliminate cysts from patients with chronic infection. Its secondary ability would be to prevent the establishment of reinfection.
He contacted the authors of the study and discovered that the vaccine had been produced and was undergoing clinical trials. Through an exchange of research material, Hansen was able to participate in the vaccination round and was given permission to publish his own findings.
The vaccine successfully removed the cysts from his brain; however the secondary objective of preventing reinfection remains inconclusive.
"Within two weeks of receiving the vaccine, all of my Christian beliefs disappeared," Hansen said proudly. "I could no longer assert the absurd tenants of the religion. I'm actually embarrassed that I believed such nonsense; I now know it was because I was infected, but it's still enough to knock my ego down a couple pegs."
It took about two weeks from when the vaccine was administered for the antibodies to develop in Hansen's body and dissolve the cysts. Subsequent MRI's confirmed the dissolution of the parasitical cysts.
This achievement may indicate that Christianity is a preventable disease.
Development of a cost effective T.gondii toxoid-containing vaccine is underway.
Hansen replicated his results on the 32 people involved in his initial study. The pastor of Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, along with leaders from churches across the country are warning their congregations about Professor Hansen, referring to him as one of the seven heads of the beast described in the book of Revelations. They are advising Christians everywhere to refuse vaccination, postulating reference to 'the mark of the beast.'
Despite Hansen's confidence in his study, the scientific community remains cautious and recommends attempting to replicate his findings. Hansen admits that his sample sizes were small and the results do not definitively demonstrate T.gondii as the cause of a person's Christianity.
"This is only a preliminary study," Hansen said at the press conference. "But it's plausible. We finally have a plausible explanation for the irrationality of Christian beliefs. Could you imagine all the hostility directed towards Christians being replaced with the empathy we view the poor AIDS infected children of Africa? This is progress."