A single-celled parasite that worms its way into the brain may be the secret driving force behind entrepreneurs around the world, research suggests.
The discovery suggests there may be a bizarre advantage to being infected by the organism, Toxoplasma gondii.
The protozoan parasite, which is spread by cats, is known to invade the brain and may cause personality changes associated with risk-taking.
While rarely producing symptoms other than a mild flu-like illness, T. gondii infection has been linked to car accidents, neuroticism and suicide.
The latest research provides new evidence that it actually drives risk-taking in business, helping to promote entrepreneural activity.
Part of the study found that professionals attending business events were almost twice as likely to have started their own enterprise if they were T. gondii positive.
An assessment of almost 1,300 US students also showed that those who had been exposed to the parasite were 1.7 times more likely to be majoring in business.
In addition they were 1.70 times more likely to be focusing on “management and entrepreneurship” than other business-related areas.
Finally, analysis of databases from 42 countries revealed that on a global scale, prevalence of T. gondii infection was a “consistent, positive predictor of entrepreneurial activity”.
The results appear in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Dr Stefanie Johnson, from the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business in the US, and her fellow authors wrote: “Populations with higher T. gondii infection had greater intentions to start a business and higher levels of active entrepreneurship behaviours.
“Countries with higher T. gondii prevalence generally had a lower fraction of respondents who cited ‘fear of failure’ as a factor preventing them from initiating a business-related enterprise.”
Entrepreneurship was characterised as a “high-risk, high-reward” activity often accompanied by a loss of economic stability, said the researchers.
The findings suggested that reduced fear of failure may be the key factor explaining the association between T. gondii infection and entrepreneurship.
The parasite has been shown to alter the behaviour of rodents in ways that increase their chances of being killed and eaten by cats.
Rats infected with T. gondii appear to lose their natural fear of the predators. Studies have shown they are less repelled by the smell of cat urine and not so likely to shy away from areas where cats live.
As a result the parasite improves its chances of reproductive success.
While T. gondii commonly spends part of its life cycle in rodents, birds and other animals, it can only reproduce in domestic cats and their relatives.
Its egg-like oocysts are shed in cat faeces, to be picked up by other hosts.