What does kitty litter have to do with entrepreneurship? (Photo: Shutterstock)

What do you need to become an entrepreneur? A good idea? Dedication? Drive? How about some cat poop?

Yes, while the road to starting you own business may be littered with challenges, who knew that it had anything to do with kitty litter? A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences found an interesting relationship between exposure to Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that can be found in cat feces, and interest in starting a business. A team from the University of Colorado (Stefanie K. Johnson, Dana M. Calhoun, Marissa A. Beldon, and Pieter T. J. Johnson), the Frankfurt School of Management and Finance (Markus A. Fitza), Deusto University (Daniel A. Lerner), and the University of Hong Kong (Elsa T. Chan) conducted the three part study.

The first part collected and analyzed data from 1495 students. Those students who tested positive in a saliva test for T. gondii exposure “were 1.4 times more likely to major in business and 1.7 times more likely to have an emphasis in ‘management and entrepreneurship’ over other business-related emphases.”

The second part focused on 197 professionals attending entrepreneurship events. Those who tested positive for T. gondii exposure “were 1.8 times more likely to have started their own business compared with other attendees.”

The third part of the study integrated data from infectious disease databases and the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. Countries with higher rates of T. gondii infections also had higher levels of entrepreneurial activity and lower proportions of people claiming that “fear of failure” was preventing them from starting new business ventures.

Pictured here is Toxoplasma Gondii, viewed under an electron microscope. (Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images)

What could a parasite that currently infects over 2 billion people around the world possibly have to do with entrepreneurship? It may all be in people’s heads. If you have a weakened immune system and are infected with the parasite, the parasite can invade your brain cells, causing lesions and leading to various central nervous system problems such as headaches, confusion, coordination problems, and seizures. A study published in the journal PLoS ONE found that T. gondii infections can alter the brain chemistry of rodents, increasing the metabolism of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Brain chemistry disturbances could be a reason why rodents infected with T. gondii tend to be less fearful and more bold, as described in an article in the journal Microbes and Infection. While such boldness may not help rodents start businesses because rodents are very bad at pitching to venture capitalists, it could make them less afraid of predators such as cats and thus more likely to be eaten. In fact, this may be a natural mechanism to help the parasites spread themselves from host to host.

If you are a baby and became infected because your mother was infected while pregnant with you, you could develop brain-related problems as well, either at birth or later in life. These include seizures and mental disability.

What if you are not a baby and don’t have a weakened immune system but become infected with T. gondii? There is a good chance that you will have no obvious symptoms and not even realize that you are infected unless you take the saliva test that checks for IgG antibodies against T. gondii. If you do have have symptoms, they may not seem much more than flu-like symptoms such as body aches, fatigue, fever, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes.

However, this latest study raises the possibility that T. gondii could still be affecting your brain even when your immune system is functioning normally. You doctor typically won’t ask you during a physical exam, “have you had any headaches, problems with coordination, or desires to start a business” but maybe he or she is missing more subtle changes in your brain functioning from a T. gondii infection. Entrepreneurship may seem like a nice symptom to have. But could such infections actually be impairing your judgement and leading to riskier and unhealthy behaviors? There are concerns that T. gondii infection could contribute to the development of psychotic behaviors such as those seen in schizophrenia, as described by this publication in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Robert Yolken, Professor of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, sits with his cat, Tibby, at his home in Baltimore, Maryland. Some researchers are looking at the microbe carried by cats, Toxoplasma gondii, which they say invade the human brain and appear to upset its chemistry -· creating, in some people, the psychotic behaviors recognized as schizophrenia. (Photo by Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/MCT via Getty Images)

So don’t start cleaning more kitty litter boxes, playing with cat feces, drinking unpasteurized dairy products, eating raw meat, or licking raw meat cutting boards so that you may get infected with T. gondii and find the guts to start a business. More studies are necessary to better understand the impact of this parasite on your brain and behavior. This latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences study only shows possible associations and cannot prove cause and effect. Moreover, while there are rats in business, they are not the kind in the T gondii and dopamine studies.  

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