Discovery of the Week: Bacteria Can Perform Mind Control

Anyone who reads a lot of science and psychology knows that free will is pretty much a fiction. Sorry.

But I have to admit that, though I knew that decision making was just chemical processes going on in the brain, I did assume that it was just the brain making the decisions.

Nope. Not entirely.

The most obvious example is the bacterium Treponema pallidum, which causes syphilis. If untreated, syphilis can develop after 10-20 years into neurosyphilis, which is when the brain or spinal cord becomes infected. It may be completely asymptomatic, but it can also result in some pretty devastating symptoms, including:

  • Mental illness such as delusions
  • Mood, personality or speech changes
  • Decreased “mental function” (this basically means you lose motivation, common sense, your memory and/or the ability to do math)

Somewhat reassuringly, Treponema pallidum doesn’t seem to be doing this “on purpose” (translate that as “as an evolved strategy for increasing its success at replicating itself”) – it’s just a side effect of the damage that naturally results when bacteria infect your brain.

The same can’t be said of the bacteria in your gut, which apparently control what you want to eat so that you provide them with more of the food that they thrive best on. They do this by releasing molecules into the gut that affect the immune system, endocrine system (the glands in your body that secrete hormones) and nervous system – controlling your emotions and contributing to the good or bad feelings you get after eating certain foods. The good news is that by altering the types of bacteria in your gut, you can alter your mood and the types of food you want to eat.

Lactobacillus casei is a bacterium that improves mood
Lactobacillus casei is a bacterium that improves mood

Feeling insignificant yet?


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