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Parasites: evolution’s neurobiologists
Shelley Anne Adamo


For millions of years, parasites have altered the behaviour of their hosts. Parasites can affect host behaviour by: (1) interfering with the host’s normal immune–neural communication, (2) secreting substances that directly alter neuronal activity via non-genomic mechanisms and (3) inducing genomic- and/or proteomic-based changes in the brain of the host. Changes in host behaviour are often restricted to particular behaviours, with many other behaviours remaining unaffected. Neuroscientists can produce this degree of selectivity by targeting specific brain areas. Parasites, however, do not selectively attack discrete brain areas. Parasites typically induce a variety of effects in several parts of the brain. Parasitic manipulation of host behaviour evolved within the context of the manipulation of other host physiological systems (especially the immune system) that was required for a parasite’s survival. This starting point, coupled with the fortuitous nature of evolutionary innovation and evolutionary pressures to minimize the costs of parasitic manipulation, likely contributed to the complex and indirect nature of the mechanisms involved in host behavioural control. Because parasites and neuroscientists use different tactics to control behaviour, studying the methods used by parasites can provide novel insights into how nervous systems generate and regulate behaviour. Studying how parasites influence host behaviour will also help us integrate genomic, proteomic and neurophysiological perspectives on behaviour.


  • Funding

    Financial support was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

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