The effects of Toxoplasma infection on rodent behavior are
dependent on dose of the stimulus
Ajai Vyas1, Seon-Kyeong Kim2, and Robert M Sapolsky1,3

1 Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA
2 Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford University,
Stanford, CA 94305, USA
3 Departments of Neurology and Neurological Sciences, and of Neurosurgery, Stanford

University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA 94305, USA

Parasite Toxoplasma gondii blocks the innate aversion of rats for cat urine, putatively increasing the likelihood of a cat predating a rat. This is thought to reflect an adaptive behavioral manipulation, because Toxoplasma can reproduce only in cat intestines. While it will be adaptive for the parasite to cause an absolute behavioral change, fitness costs associated with the manipulation itself suggest that the change be optimized and not maximized. We investigate these conflicting suggestions in the present report. Furthermore, exposure to cat odor causes long-lasting acquisition of learnt fear in the
rodents. If Toxoplasma manipulates emotional valence of cat odor rather than just sensory response, infection should affect learning driven by the aversive properties of the odor. As a second aim of the present study, we investigate this assertion. We demonstrate that behavioral changes in rodents induced by Toxoplasma infection do not represent absolute all-or-none effects. Rather, these effects follow a non-monotonous function dependent on strength of stimulus, roughly resembling an inverted-U curve. Furthermore, infection affects conditioning to cat odor in a manner dependent upon strength of unconditioned stimulus employed. Non-monotonous relationship between behavioral manipulation and strength of cat odor agrees with the suggestion that a dynamic balance exists between benefit obtained and costs incurred by the parasite during the manipulation. This report also demonstrates that Toxoplasma affects emotional valence of the cat odor as indicated by altered
learned fear induced by cat odor.
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