We don’t normally associate parasitic infection with entrepreneurship, but a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B makes an argument that a common cat parasite could be connected to having business ambition.

When you come in contact with cat feces, you open yourself up to the risk of exposure to Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite also found in undercooked meat and contaminated water. (Half of infected humans in the U.S. get it from food.) Despite its rather dire profile—it’s a brain parasite that can form cysts in hosts—T. gondii typically doesn’t result in any noticeable symptoms. In fact, as the authors note, one-third of the world’s population may be infected. It's mostly of concern to pregnant women, because a new infection can cause potentially fatal birth complications.

The University of Colorado study looked at 1495 U.S. students who submitted a saliva sample and were grouped according to whether they tested positive for T. gondii. Those who did were 1.4 times more likely to major in business and 1.7 times more likely to place an emphasis on management and entrepreneurship. In another part of the study, they found that of 197 attendees at entrepreneurial events, those infected by T. gondii were 1.8 times more likely to have started their own company compared to those who tested negative.

They also looked at the past 25 years of data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor of entrepreneurial activity, and say that countries with a higher infection rate have more entrepreneurial activity and fewer people who cited a "fear of failure" as a reason to avoid starting a business.

It bears mentioning that filtering results of T. gondii through people at business events—a self-selecting group—will likely net results different than those collected among a general population, especially because T. gondii infections are so common. The authors note: "While correlational, these results highlight the linkage between parasitic infection and complex human behaviours, including those relevant to business, entrepreneurship and economic productivity."

While the effects of T. gondii on our brains and behavior are still being puzzled out, there's some evidence the microbe can influence the inhibitions and fears of its host. Scientists found that rats infected with the parasite lose their fear of cats, which are the microbe's natural host (it lives in cats' guts). In humans, T. gondii might also correspond with an increased risk of suicide, possibly due to an immune system response that can affect cytokines, molecules that affect various cells in the brain. It's possible it's not the infection but our body's reaction to it that prompts a change in behavior. Until scientists understand more about how this parasite affects our brain chemistry, it's probably best to keep washing your hands after cleaning the litter box—even if you're hoping to launch a startup.

[h/t New Scientist]