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Brain, behavior, and evolution – updated

For week three of the UNM Evolutionary Medicine class we will discuss behavioral changes that happen with infection and sickness.

One of my favorite topics is sickness behavior. Many different species alter their activity level, feeding behavior, and engage in novel behaviors that do not occur in health. Even caterpillars exhibit altered behavior when they are sick with infection.


Woolly bear caterpillars seek out foods with plant toxins when they are infected with parasites. Is this self-medication behavior? Are we, like the caterpillars, predisposed to take medication when we don’t feel well?

Read: Self-Medication as Adaptive Plasticity: Increased Ingestion of Plant Toxins by Parasitized Caterpillars

In the case of infection by parasites, one must consider the possibility that the behavioral hijacking.  If so, the behavioral change might benefit the interest of the parasite, not its hosts.

Read: Carl Zimmer reviewed some of the experimental and theoretical work supporting this view in the NY Times.

At the recent Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting in Tempe Arizona, I explored some of these themes, and will reprise that presentation for the class next Tuesday. Below: artwork by the talented Alex Cagan:

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 9.04.33 PM

Updated – for next week:

Read Anorexia – Clinical Brief

Read carefully  Abstract and final paragraph “Anorexia Created Trade-offs on Pathogen Virulence and Transmission” Pathogen-mediated Inhibition of Anorexia Cell 2017

Screen Shot 2018-11-23 at 9.13.14 AM

Also read the blog entry: Killer Vitamins

Writing assignment:

1) Why are vitamins so popular in the general public (consider the caterpillar article)? What would you tell your clinic patients who take multiple multivitamins daily and spend several hundred dollars yearly on vitamins and supplements [1/2 page max]

2) Permissive underfeeding is a strategy used sometimes in the intensive care unit. What is the evolutionary rationale for this “underfeeding” strategy used for the critically ill? [1/2 page max]






Categories: Uncategorized

Joe Alcock

Emergency Physician, Educator, Researcher, interested in the microbiome, evolution, and medicine

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