Stockholm Syndrome

Many of my ideas may either be decades ahead of their time –or just flat out completely wrong– but at least one of them awaits scientific confirmation by a bold, visionary biologist.  A future Nobel Prize winner, undoubtedly.  I’m referring to the unseen influence wielded over the human species by its bacterial fellow-travelers, our microbiome.  Last week (online) and this (in print), the New York Times published a pop science piece entitled “Our Microbiome May Be Looking Out for Itself.”  The story provided a light gloss on current research:

A team of scientists has raised [the] possibility [that] perhaps our menagerie of germs is influencing our behavior in order to advance its own evolutionary success.  “What are the means, motives and opportunity for the microbes to manipulate us? They have all three,” said Carlo C. Maley, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

The NYT article concentrates its storyline on gut bacteria:

Our microbiome has the biochemical potential to … [synthesize and] release molecules that can directly or indirectly influence [our] brains.  Intestinal bacteria make [neurotransmitters such as] dopamine and serotonin, which our neurons use to communicate with one another. And the microbes can deliver these neurotransmitters to the dense web of nerve endings that line the gastrointestinal tract.  Some experiments suggest that bacteria also can influence the way their hosts eat. Dr. Maley and his colleagues argue that our eating habits create a strong motive for microbes to manipulate us. “From the microbe’s perspective, what we eat is a matter of life and death,” Dr. Maley said.

That’s all well and good as far as it goes, but I’m convinced there’s much more to this host-manipulation phenomenon than a microbe colony’s free lunch. For example, the first step in a microbe’s long-term survival plan is gaining entry to its host organism in the first place.  You have to get in the door –or the window– before you can make yourself at home.  Apart from the hardy bacteria that survive and thrive on the surface of human skin, millions of virus and microbe species cannot easily reproduce outside our warm, wet interior environment.  Not all of these lil’ critters are benign symbiotic tenants, either: some of them are such zealous procreators that they trigger an immune system reaction, accompanied by wildly diverse symptoms of discomfort and illness.   What’s their secret?  How do they get us to open the door and invite them inside (like vampires and freemasons)?

Well folks, I think I may have one answer to the puzzle of microbial trickster entry.  The secret may lie in the (extremely) low-voltage electrical field that covers each of our bodies like an invisible second skin.  If certain microbe species were able to develop a method of altering that electric field in a way that manifests itself as a nagging itch near an inviting body opening, guess what?  That itch usually gets scratched, and any microbe that has established a tenuous beachhead on the appropriate fingers gets a free ride to the eyes, ears, nose or mouth.  Mission accomplished, let the procreation begin.

I initially generated this tentative hypothesis after many years of inadvertent trial and inevitable error.  Like many people, I’ve caught my fair share of colds and flu-like illnesses as I’ve stumbled through life.  Although I have known for years that paper currency is a well-known vector for the spread of infectious disease, I wasn’t always fastidious about cleaning my hands after handling money.  I made a point of washing before meals, but hadn’t really considered other points of entry.  Then, gradually, I somehow started to notice that shortly after handling money my body began to itch in places that didn’t otherwise usually itch: my eyes.  My nose.  My ears.  I had also started to notice a correlation between scratching those itches and subsequent nagging illness.  That second observation was not particularly surprising: it was easy to believe that my dirty fingers had transmitted disease. But the first part of the equation –the itch itself– seemed too much of a coincidence.  I’m itching after handling money, but not before?  What’s up with that?

...with apologies to Johathon Rosen

…with apologies to Johathon Rosen

I knew about the body’s electrical field because I’ve often used its potential to coax balky fluorescent lights to life: the micro-jolt of voltage from a bare finger applied to the metal casing of a fluorescent fixture is sometimes enough to spark the light into action when the ballast and starter can’t do the job alone.  So I thought of the possibility that disturbances in the field’s uniformity might be perceived by its inhabitant as some kind of uncomfortable sensation.  Like an itch, perhaps.

Correlation, of course, is not causation.  But it’s good enough for government work, as they say at the CDC.  My training as an intell analyst allowed me to use reasonable suspicion as the basis of my tentative judgement; I needn’t strain for proof beyond a shadow of doubt.   Medical research has higher standards (and properly so).  It will take a lot more data beyond an n of 1 to convincingly make the case that microbial manipulation of bioelectric fields is actually occurring, let alone demonstrating the mechanism that’s being used.  So consider this an open call to all aspiring biologists currently entering junior high school:  by the time you graduate with a university degree and begin a career in medical research, this off-the-wall hypothesis will still be awaiting your definitive refutation –or, perhaps, your novel prize-winning proof.

See you in Stockholm!



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