Thursday, October 20, 2016

Interesting Science and the Litigation Process

Science is intriguing. In the legal field there are innovations and technological advances. We feel sometimes like we are on the cutting edge of certain things. But, lawyers and judges are really just about process and procedure, rights and responsibilities. We deal with what is, for the most part, rarely with what might be. We are not innovators in the way that scientists are. We struggle for truth and justice, but science is struggling to understand the very foundations of our existence, and that is interesting and intriguing.

I recently ran across an article in The Atlantic. The headline caught my attention. That happens a lot, but unfortunately I thereafter find few articles worth reading all the way through. This one, How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy, was an exception. I read it twice. No, it is not about cat behavior and antics and aloofness, every cat owner has a story about their cat (chewed this, hid that, likes, dislikes, etc.). This one is actually about taking over the very function of the human mind, and it is fascinating. You read that right, taking over the human mind. 

The tag line of the article is "could tiny organisms carried by house cats be creeping into our brains, causing everything from car wrecks to schizophrenia?" That is intriguing. Essentially, The Atlantic tells us that Jaroslav Flegr is a scientist who has drawn focus to parasitical influences on neurology. Remember, one might decide any particular scientist is an Expert or Faker

But to reach that conclusion, we first have to consider the science and the conclusions. Flegr believes that a "single-celled parasite," a protozoa excreted in cat feces, has the ability to subtly manipulate personality. The effect can result in unexpected behavior. Some effects of this parasite have long been well-known. Toxoplasmosis has long, since the 1920s, supported physician advice for pregnant women to avoid cat feces and litter boxes. But Flegr believes the impact of this parasite is more pervasive than previously known. 

Conventional wisdom has been that this protozoa can have detrimental effects on those with weak immune systems. It has been blamed for dementia symptoms in patients with immune implicated diseases such as HIV. Scientists have believed that this parasite does not effect the healthy, but upon infection it merely lies dormant in the body. That conclusion is beginning to change.

Flegr believes that the impact of this parasite is broader. Flegr believes that the "dormant" parasite "may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents." That last one is fascinating. I have long noticed that people have different perceptions of scents. Sometimes I note a strong scent and others around me do not notice. Other times, someone around me will complain of a scent, but I do not really notice it. We are, after all, very different people. 

Dr. Flegr believes this parasitical protozoa can work even more profound effects upon us; he "believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders." It may even be responsible for killing a "million people a year." That is a significant volume. That is about twice the volume of Americans expected to die from cancer this year. While Flegr's analysis is worldwide, this comparison to American cancer deaths provides some scale for comparison. 

Dr. Flegr concedes that people do not readily accept that their behavior may be controlled or influenced. In other words, we all believe we have free will and are reluctant to think we are controlled (Madison Avenue has been proving us wrong for eons). It is notable that his conclusions, to some, "sound an awful lot like fringe science, right up there with UFO sightings and claims of dolphins telepathically communicating with humans." But, there is a trend toward growing acceptance of his conclusions according to The Atlantic. Scientists at Stanford, and the Stanley Institute are lending credence to some of the conclusions. 

Recently, studies have suggested "the parasite is capable of extraordinary shenanigans." Research supports that infected rodents exhibited demonstrably different behavior: "much more active in running wheels," and "less wary of predators in exposed spaces." Both of which might increase the odds of a cat consuming them. Why on earth would a rat want to encourage the cat to consume it?

In experiments with rats, the parasite has been shown to alter the rodent's aversion to its primary predator, cats. The scientists conclude that a rat's natural aversion to cats is in fact reprogrammed by the parasite and the rat becomes attracted to the very thing that presents danger. Cat urine is avoided by uninfected rats, but it contrarily seems to attract infected rats.

The scientists suggest that this alteration is accomplished because the parasite needs the cat to multiply. The parasite can survive in other hosts, it reproduces only in cats. The parasite cannot prosper and spread without the help of the cat. Thus, the purpose of the protozoan's life in other hosts, like a rat, is to somehow travel from the rat host back to a cat host; you guessed it, the parasite needs the rat to be eaten. In this way it returns to a host that facilitates multiplication, propagation of its species if you will. 

To alter the rat's natural behavior, the parasite "rewires circuits in parts of the brain that deal with such primal emotions as fear, anxiety, and sexual arousal." In what scientists call "bizarre neurobiology,” experts think various parasites may share this ability to neurologically influence a host. An expert from the Stanley Institute suggests that similar host influencing could be evidenced by viruses like rabies, in which nervous system agitation accommodates spread of the virus from host to host. Another scientist contends that "there are truckloads of" organisms "behaving weirdly as a result of parasites."

Dr. Flegr's research with the parasite at the root of Toxoplasmosis began in 1990. His university colleagues were studying detection of this parasite and he agreed to donate blood. he learned he was carrying (hosting) the parasite and began to wonder if its presence could explain his own diminished fear responses, something he had noticed for years. Something he had labelled a "self-destructive streak."

His resulting research demonstrated that the parasite is excreted by cats, "typically picked up from the soil by scavenging . . .rodents," and returned to a feline through rodent consumption. But humans can acquire it because grazing animals or rainwater have been exposed to cat feces, directly or as contaminated water is exposed to vegetables which are later consumed with insufficient cleaning. Flegr thus blames food habits for infection rates. He blames the French attraction to undercooked meat for infection rates "as high as 55 percent."

Americans harbor infection rates of 10 to 20 percent. He theorizes that the parasite's "intent" is ultimately rodent infestation, which spreads the organism geographically. But, he believes the larger mammals (humans, etc.) are "accidental hosts," and that we are "a dead end for the parasites." as we will not be consumed by a cat. Thus, once in the human or other large mammal host, the parasite is perhaps still spread through waste, but is less likely returned to a feline host in which it is capable of reproduction.

But, he asserts that the parasite may nonetheless work similar neurological changes on our system. Changing our behavior despite the fact that changing our behavior will not enhance the chances of a cat eating us. The alterations, intended by the parasite to increase its chances of having the host consumed by a cat and leading to propagation, might be worked on the neurology of any host, even the "accidental" or "dead end" ones. The Atlantic reminds us that "mammals from mouse to man share the vast majority of their genes." Thus, Flegr's conclusions about neurological manipulation may be of concern; "we might, in a case of mistaken identity, still be vulnerable to (neurological) manipulations by the parasite."

This parasite could be influencing how we (some of us, perhaps many of us; 319 million Americans, if 10% infected that is 32 million people, roughly the population of California) perceive our world. What scents we perceive and how we react to them, how we perceive and react to danger, our very "fight or flight," reactions. This is very intriguing. Could a parasite be controlling your neurological responses?

As I read The Atlantic article, I found their relatively new focus on otherwise healthy human neurology fascinating. It occurs to me that the Toxoplasmosis infection process and effects has been known on some level for at least one hundred years, and yet scientists are only now learning more about it. The work of science is intriguing and thought-provoking. We seem to know a little more each day. Scientists are out on the leading edge of this and other curiosities of our very world, our very being, and their work is fascinating. Each day brings new scientific developments and new beliefs. Not necessarily facts; remember when opioids were thrust upon the injured worker scene and acclaimed as the "no risk" solution to so much in the realm of injury? 

But, I also wondered whether the processes and Flegr's conclusions would pass the tests of Daubert? In other words, would this discussion, research and conclusion(s) be admissible in a Florida workers' compensation case? And, if it is not today, that does not mean that it will never be. Science evolves. Flegr's research may not be enough alone. His conclusions may be intriguing, but not yet admissible. But other scientists, studies, and conclusions may follow. They will confirm or refute findings. They may bring new perspectives to the analysis just as Flegr has. He may be a pioneer, but with more research his theories may be debunked. 

In time, we will see some scientific consensus, and as a dispute resolution process, we will see scientific consensus and belief affect how cases are perceived and decided. For better or worse, we are not the scientists. We think we are pretty good at determining the credibility of those who testify as scientists, but we are not scientists. So, we do what we do with procedure and process, listen and consider, and do our best.

But the scientists are questioning, testing, and perhaps progressing. It is intriguing to witness their quest, and the conclusions that they reach. Our job is to consider their process, their conclusions, and their consensus. In a particular instance, are they bringing truth, or yet another opioid epidemic of unintended or unforeseen consequences? Because, in the end, it is possible that some conclusions an advances may change our world, and others may just be spreading feces.

And the bigger question, did I really find this article interesting, or am I being manipulated by some protozoan influence?

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