Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Invasion and Parasites that Change Behavior

If you've watched TV or opened the entertainment section of your newspaper recently, you've seen ads for The Invasion, staring Nicole Kidman, and recognized it as a fancy remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I don't think that I'm spoiling the plot by saying that the involves alien spores that take over humans as they sleep. Infected people are spotted by the heroine by their unusual behavior.

Dr. Marc Siegel uses The Invasion as a jumping off point to write about the "truth about behavioral changes" caused by viruses and parasites in his Unreal World column for the LA Times (login with bugmenot). His plot summary emphasizes some of the silly bioscience used to explain how people are "snatched."
This time, instead of plant-like pods, it's an alien virus-like particle attached to the wreckage of the NASA Shuttle Patriot, and it begins to spread rapidly through the human population. The virus (in the jargon of the movie) interferes with sweat, causes a "cellular condensation," a "metabolic reaction" and alters the body's "genetic expression" by the "integration of alien DNA" -- while turning everyone into emotionless robots.
While the premise of The Invasion may be pseudoscience, Siegel does discuss several viruses that do indeed affect human behavior, including virus-like prions, viral encephalitis, and Borna disease virus. The real world is often more bizarre than what imaginative Hollywood screenwriters can imagine.

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  1. According to a recent article in Science, invasions of body snatchers may be quite common (at least, under an evolutionary perspective). OK, perhaps they are "gene snatchers". Our own genome might be already populated by genes from snatching microorganisms! For entertaining reading about the Science paper, I recommend Not Exactly Rocket Science or The Scientist.

  2. That genome in a genome stuff is pretty cool. I wouldn't call it body snatching, though - it's more like the microbial genome was assimilated. Thanks for the links!

  3. Anonymous12:10 PM

    Thanks for the nod, Cesar. Maybe Wolbachia isn't a true body snatcher, but Toxoplasma definitely is.

    It's a brain parasite that affects a huge proportion of the world's population and may have had an influence (albeit a subtle one) on human culture.

  4. I wasn't sure if I wanted to see the film...still not sure. Do you recommend it? Anyhow, check out my Friday Feature post over at The Alien Next Door for a present...no, not a body snatcher! Something more enjoyable! :)


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