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Can a brain parasite found in cats influence soccer talent?

 

As I mentioned in a previous post, my older brother and I grew up playing soccer from a young age. In the beginning, my family's appreciation of the game was limited to weekend matches but over the years we turned into full-blown soccer fanatics. In fact, I've seen, but can't recall in much detail, every U.S. qualifying game and World Cup match since 1986. Largely because my father religiously programmed the VCR to record the games and then commandeered the only TV in the house to replay them.

So I paid particular attention to a story published yesterday in Slate theorizing that a brain parasite known as Toxoplasma gondi, or Toxo, may help soccer teams win at the World Cup. Patrick House, a graduate student at the School of Medicine studying Toxoplasma gondii, writes:

If we set aside the qualifying rounds (in which teams can play to a draw) and focus on matches with a clear winner, the results are very compelling. In the knockout round of this year's tournament, eight out of eight winners so far have been the teams whose countries had higher rates of Toxo infection. If we go back to the 2006 World Cup, seven out of eight knockout-round winners could be predicted by higher Toxo rates. The one exception to the rule was Brazil's defeat of Ghana, a match between two nations that each have very high rates. (Aside from having the winningest team in World Cup history, Brazil has quite a few cases of Toxo: Two out of three Brazilians are infected.)

It gets better. Rank the top 25 FIFA team countries by Toxo rate and you get, in order from the top: Brazil (67 percent), Argentina (52 percent), France (45 percent), Spain (44 percent) and Germany (43 percent). Collectively, these are the teams responsible for eight of the last 10 World Cup overall winners. Spain, the only one of the group never to have won a cup, is no subpar outlier-the Spaniards have the most World Cup victories of any perpetual runner-up...

...Now, what does the Toxo parasite do that could possibly relate to soccer performance? Not much is known about its impact on the human brain, but there are clues. We know that infection increases testosterone in male brains, making them more likely to get into car accidents, more attractive to females, and more prone to being jealous, dogmatic, and dismissive of authority. Evidence even suggests that motorcyclists are more likely to have Toxo. Something like a James Dean effect. Generally, males with Toxo are more aggressive and less inhibited. Keep in mind that FIFA, in line with most sporting organizations in the world, bans testosterone supplements of any kind. But they do not ban Toxo, and if Toxo increases testosterone levels, we may be dealing with a form of inadvertent, cultural doping.

The entire article is worth a read, especially in light of a recent story in The Economist detailing the growing body of research on the parasite and its effect on human behavior.

Photo by Slava Keyzman

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