I have a fondness for parasites. Over the years I’ve loved reading about them in books like Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures and New Guinea Tapeworms and Jewish Grandmothers: Tales of Parasites and People as well as hearing about them on programs like Radiolab. You can imagine how excited I got when I learned there was a new book on the way with the intriguing title of This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society. Right after hearing that news for several months I kept a watching eye on my public library in hopes it would purchase a few copies of Kathleen McAuliffe’s new book. As luck would have it my pubic library did not let me down. Once a copy become available I happily borrowed it.
As you can guess from the book’s complete title, what sets this book apart from other books devoted to these invasive little creatures is McAuliffe shows how some parasites are able to modify their host’s behavior so the host acts in ways that ultimately benefits the parasite. Probably the best known example of a parasite making a host do its bidding is that of Toxoplasma. When a rodent gets infected with Toxoplasma this teeny parasite alters the rodent’s brain so it’s now attracted to the scent of cats. This makes the rodent easy prey and thus increases the odds the cat will ingest the Toxoplasma parasite. After being ingested it’s eventually passed out of the cat only to be picked up again by another rodent. In addition to Toxoplasma, This Is Your Brain on Parasites also features other freaky parasites like a wasp larva that make spiders spin customized webs and a worm that cause crickets to drown themselves.
While at least one reviewer saw McAuliffe’s science as being “shaky” I thought her book made for interesting and entertaining reading. (Heck, not being a scientist I’m not in any position to say one way or another if McAuliffe knows what she’s talking about.) It also fired me up to read more books like hers, and one at the top of my list is Ed Yong’s recent book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. After hearing all kinds of good things about Yong’s book I can’t wait to read it.