You know the guy. You’re driving the speed limit and he’s on your rear bumper like orange on Donald Trump. He gets a break, zips past and cuts dangerously in front you, glaring menacingly into his rear view mirror. Should you call the police? Based on new research, it might be better to flag him down and gently explain to him that he’s probably suffering from a rage-inducing brain parasite that he got from cat litter. On second thought, call the cops too.
This connection between road rage and a parasite is described in a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. The clinical term for extreme, impulsive bouts of anger is Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED) and it’s estimated that up to 16 million Americans may be affected by it – more than bipolar disorder and schizophrenia combined.
Emil Coccaro, MD, from the University of Chicago is researching IED and searching for possible causes to aid in treatment. He decided to look at toxoplasmosis - a common parasitic infection transited via cat feces, raw meat and untreated water – because it resides in the brain and has been linked to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and suicidal behavior. It can cause severe neurological problems and death in infants whose mothers get infected during pregnancy, which is why pregnant women are advised to stay away from litter boxes. Could it be a cause of road rage too?
It’s known that 30 percent of all humans carry the Toxoplasma gondii parasite with no visible symptoms. In their study of 358 adults, Coccaro and his team used blood tests to identify those people. They then tested their levels of anger and aggression and found that toxoplasmosis-positive subjects scored much higher than the rest. Should we all be tested for the parasite or just angry cat owners with dirty litter boxes?
Our work suggests that latent infection with the toxoplasma gondii parasite may change brain chemistry in a fashion that increases the risk of aggressive behavior. However, we do not know if this relationship is causal, and not everyone that tests positive for toxoplasmosis will have aggression issues.
Toxoplasmosis can be prevented in people with vulnerable immune systems with the antibiotic trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole and can be treated with a number of antibiotics. Should you carry an antibiotic cocktail to offer drivers who angrily cut you off? Probably not, says Coccaro. His team needs to conduct more tests using brain fluid.
Good luck getting that from the guy giving you the finger.