Book Review – This Is Your Brain on Parasites

This is a pretty good book that left me wanting for more. I have to admit that I learned quite a few things from it.

The author was quite ambitious (in the best way) in her treatment of the topic, providing quite a few interesting examples of parasites that influence the behavior of their hosts. The book was very well-written, was thought-provoking, and I liked that Ms. McAuliffe organized the material starting from the examples that have the most reliable scientific evidence available, all the way to the more speculative hypotheses regarding parasitic mind control. The speculations on ethics, religion, and geography as they relate to parasitology were quite interesting and I can only hope that scientists follow up on these ideas. Interesting times ahead for sure!

I absolutely **loved** the chapter on “disgustology”. I will not say anything about it except for the fact that in this chapter she explicitly mentions by name the two most likely presidential candidates for this 2016 election cycle (yes, those two). I’ll let you read about it.

As a pharmacologist/neurobiologist, I was a little disappointed by the relative lack of detail on the mechanism of the examples described in the book, but I guess this is what scientific publications are for… (:-)… In these lines, I have to say that I got very frustrated by the lack of proper references and notes. The book had notes, yes, but organized in a weird way that I have never seen in another book. I only say the notes after I finished reading the book, because there were no indications in the text about them. Basically, the notes were constructed as the page number, followed by a short phrase, followed by the actual note. This was a very inefficient way to provide notes, as again, they were not indicated in the actual text (no numbers, asterisks, etc.), so I had to re-read the whole page to find the phrase so I would know what the quote was about. I stopped trying after a couple of times; it was too cumbersome. Also, the actual references were embedded within the notes, not in alphabetical order.

As the book progressed, it became more “rushed” and at the end, at the very last page, the book  essentially ended with an idea quite reminiscent on how Richard Dawkins concluded his book “The Selfish Gene”. I’ll let you judge for yourself.

**Miscellaneous musings**

Page 36 (Hardcover edition): “…the popular antidepressant Prozac alters the metabolism of serotonin”. This is not correct. What Prozac and related antidepressants do (in brief) is to block the recapture of serotonin and other neurotransmitters by the neuron that released it. The metabolism of serotonin is an entirely different process, controlled by at least three different enzymes.

Page 51 (Hardcover edition): “That eight-legged form may act like any other crab, but…”. This is admittedly a picky observation, but crabs have ten legs, not eight; they are not arachnids, they are a different type of organisms.

Page 55 (Hardcover edition, referring to a plant that laces its nectar with caffeine, research published about 2013):”…I think this is the first case where we see a pharmacological manipulation of an animal by a plant.” I admit that I did not know about this specific case (caffeine), but there are indeed quite a few known examples of plants that influence the behavior of animals by neuroactive chemicals. For example, see the classic Scientific American article by Ehrlich and Raven: “Butterflies and plants. Scientific American (June 1967)”.

Page 218 (Hardcover edition): The paragraph that starts with: “This odyssey…”; I have but one comment: **Huh?**. Read it, you’ll see what I mean…

Nonetheless, for the most part, I enjoyed reading this book, and I hope that the story continues…

brain parasites

Picture credit: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society

by Kathleen McAuliffe (2016)

Publisher: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (June 7, 2016)

ISBN-13: 978-0544192225

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