Louis Wain was a prominent artist in England during the early 20th century. His work was featured in many of the top-selling publications. You might even be vaguely familiar with some of his work, which is famous for cats and kittens in a cutesy, large-eyed and anthropomorphised fashion.

The pictures started when his wife was dying of breast cancer. In order to bring a smile to the face of his bedbound wife, he brought her a stray black-and-white kitten. Its name was Peter. Over the next few decades, Wain’s cat pictures caught on and his career flourished – but his  behaviour became increasingly erratic. Finally, in 1924, his family couldn’t cope with his violent outbursts, and had him committed. Even worse, they couldn’t afford good care for him – despite his success, Wain had little reward; his psychological-state resulting in him under-selling work and being duped into dubious arrangements.

A year after being committed, Louis Wain – now a national treasure – was discovered, diagnosed with schizophrenia and languishing in a paupers ward in Tooting.  His plight was publicized by H. G. Wells, and after the personal intervention of the Prime Minister, Wain was transferred to the Bethlem Royal Hospital – an infamous psychiatric institute with a long, chequered history (it’s where the word ‘bedlam’ originated). Over the last few decades of his life, Wain remained in hospital, becoming increasingly deluded. He continued to voraciously produce his cat-pictures, with his output echoing his deteriorating mental condition. The startling images he produced whilst in hospital were an abstract menagerie of stunning visuals, the cats being reworked into mesmerising kaleidoscopes of fractals and geometric patterning – an effect that foreshadowed the psychedelia of the 1960s.

Around the same time that Wain was languishing in an institution, the British Psychiatrist Edwin Goodall delivered a talk asserting that schizophrenia was caused by an infection[1]. Goodall described his time working at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London. Whilst working at the hospital, spinal fluid from patients with schizophrenia had been extracted and injected into rabbits in an attempt to identify the mysterious infective agent [2]. However, the source of infection that Goodall sought – it now transpires – might have been right under his nose all along [3] – displayed in the technicolour pictures of Louis Wain.

The notion that schizophrenia is caused by a single, simple factor has been widely discredited. Over the course of the 20th century, such explanations gave way to an increasingly complex model, where mental illness is caused by a blend of genetic, cultural, social and environmental factors.  But over the last few years, the idea that infections play their role is again gaining traction. The source of the infection? Cats.

More specifically, the culprit is Toxoplasmosis gondii. It’s a wily trickster of a pathogen, specifically evolved to exploit the life-cycle of cats and their prey, such as mice and rats. When these prey become infected, the parasite can punch its way into the cells of their host, hiding away in the brain and other tissues. Here, T. gondii reveals a guile for manipulation and exploitation, where it remodels the rodent brains. It is the sort of sinister trick that we might expect from a Hollywood zombie-parasite. The effect of this reprogramming is to make the rats more curious, less fearful – but also slower, and easier to catch [4]. Even more impressively, the rats become sexually attracted to the urinary smell of its biggest enemy – cats. It’s a case of ‘fatal attraction’.

And why does T. gondii go to such lengths to manipulate its rodent hosts?  It’s a trick that allows the parasite to complete its life cycle. The rodents, now much easier to catch, end up in the stomachs of the cats – which is the main host for T. gondii, where it can now sexually reproduce.

The problem for humans is that these manipulations have a blunderbuss approach. The parasite can easily effect humans, and around one-third of the world’s population are carrying T. gondii. And you’re even more likely to be infected if you have a cat.  And yep, all those brain specific manipulations also appear to play out in human brains.  All sorts of associations have been discovered between T. gondii and alterations in human behaviour. Infected people have been shown to have slower reaction times and are more likely to take  in risky behaviour. This seems to play a role in both work place accidents [5] and road traffic accidents [6]. One study observed that those with T. gondii were involved in accidents more than twice as often than those without.

With all this brain reengineering, its no surprise that T.gondii infection is a major risk factor in many mental illnesses – epilepsy, migraines, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer disease, bipolar disorder and suicide [5,7].  It is also associated with schizophrenia. A recent large-scale study, for example, found that the risk of schizophrenia was nearly 3 times greater following T.gondii infection [8], with the infection tending to precede the schizophrenic illness by two years [9]. 

With schizophrenia caused by such a complexity of different factors, the illness of Louis Wain can never be blamed on a single cause. Some people have even doubted the diagnosis of schizophrenia [10]. Nonetheless, when Louis Wain began his period of manic inspiration… it’s just possible that the cats themselves – and the bugs they carried – played a hidden, sinister role.

References

1              Goodall E. Part IV. — Notes and News. The Journal of Mental Science 1932;78:746–55.

2              Crow TJ. A re-evaluation of the viral hypothesis: is psychosis the result of retroviral integration at a site close to the cerebral dominance gene? The British Journal of Psychiatry 1984;145:243–253.

3              Van Eeckelen K. HOW MAD IS THAT CAT? Psychotic Patterns Starring In The Louis Wain Kitten Book. https://nietzschegirardmimetism.com/louis-wain/

4              Berdoy M, Webster JP, Macdonald DW. Fatal attraction in rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 2000;267:1591–4. doi:10.1098/rspb.2000.1182

5              Flegr J. Influence of latent Toxoplasma infection on human personality, physiology and morphology: pros and cons of the Toxoplasma-human model in studying the manipulation hypothesis. J Exp Biol 2013;216:127–33. doi:10.1242/jeb.073635

6              Yereli K, Balcioğlu IC, Ozbilgin A. Is Toxoplasma gondii a potential risk for traffic accidents in Turkey? Forensic Sci Int 2006;163:34–7. doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2005.11.002

7              Webster JP, Kaushik M, Bristow GC, et al. Toxoplasma gondii infection, from predation to schizophrenia: can animal behaviour help us understand human behaviour? Journal of Experimental Biology 2013;216:99–112. doi:10.1242/jeb.074716

8              Sølvsten Burgdorf K, Trabjerg B, Giørtz Pedersen M, et al. Large-scale study of Toxoplasma and Cytomegalovirus shows an association between infection and serious psychiatric disorders. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity Published Online First: January 2019. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2019.01.026

9              Torrey EF, Bartko JJ, Yolken RH. Toxoplasma gondii and Other Risk Factors for Schizophrenia: An Update. Schizophrenia Bulletin 2012;38:642–7. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbs043

10           Fitzgerald M. Louis Wain and Asperger’s syndrome. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine 2002;19:101. doi:10.1017/S0790966700007217

11           Ferguson DJ. Toxoplasma gondii: 1908-2008, homage to Nicolle, Manceaux and Splendore. Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz 2009;104:133–148.