Pregnant women have long been told to stay away from the litter box. The cat parasite, toxoplasma gondii, which is spread through cat feces and other means, can cause potential damage to an unborn child if the mother becomes infected. But now scientists have discovered that isn’t the only risk—that infected women could also be more likely to commit suicide.
Cat Parasite and Suicide Risk?
The study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, looked at 45,000 women in Denmark and how their brains changed after being infected by the cat parasite. Their results: that women infected with T. gondii were one and a half times more likely to attempt suicide than those who weren’t infected.
As the body created antibodies to the cat parasite, the risk for suicide rose. Also, the risk was even higher for violent suicide attempts.
“We can’t say with certainty that T. gondii caused the women to try to kill themselves, but we did find a predictive association between the infection and suicide attempts later in life that warrants additional studies,” said Dr. Teodor T. Postolache, University of Maryland School of Medicine psychiatrist and suicide neuroimmunology expert, according to ABC News.
One-third of the world’s population is exposed to the cat parasite T. gondii and most of them never experience symptoms or know they are infected. The parasite first infects the intestines and then moves to the muscles and the brain.
“The parasite does actually alter the brain of its host,” says Stanford University’s Patrick House. House and other researchers found last year that rats infected with T.gondii actually lost their fear of cats. Also, the part of their brain associated with sexual arousal was stimulated.
“The fact that a parasite can get into an organism, target its brain, stay there without killing the host and alter the circuitry of the brain— we’ve seen this in insects and fungi, but it’s the first time we’ve seen it in a mammalian host,” said House.
Postolache wonders if some patients may be predisposed to the neurological changes, explaining why some women become suicidal and some do not. He also suggests that the parasite may change neurological pathways in those vulnerable women, “so that projections of fear and depression from the amygdala are not tempered or controlled by the ‘braking’ function of the prefrontal cortex.”
He suggests the strongest prevention of contracting T. gondii is in washing hands, proper cooking of food, and not using knives, cutting boards, etc. exposed to raw meat on other foods.
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