MISSOULA, Mont. – It’s something many of us have never heard of before yet many of us may have the untreatable disease without ever knowing it.
According to KPAX, a mind-controlling parasite that can live in a cat, can manipulate personality and possibly suicide numbers.
The parasite is called Toxoplasma gondii and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 60 million people in the U.S. may be carrying it.
The parasite has been shown to cause personality changes, correlating with mental health diseases like schizophrenia, autism and Alzheimer’s disease.
University of Montana Microbiology Professor Bill Granath said some studies have also found women with the parasite may be more prone to suicide.
“It’s a very insidious, some of the studies that you can read, how the parasite can attack certain nerves and manipulate various neurotransmitters and cause various mental illnesses. I guess you’d call it…altered states,” he said.
Studies have shown increased recklessness in the infected human population who also have a slightly higher rate of traffic accidents.
Various studies also correlate toxoplasmosis with suicide in veterinarians and while nothing says definitively that the phenomenon is caused by the parasite, some believe there is a link.
Veterinarian Trevor Ferguson said suicide is one of the first things students are warned about at school.
“The occupation does carry a risk with some zoonotic diseases that humans can get and animals can get. But, probably as far as suicide rates, it’s probably more associated with stress than it has to do with zoonotic diseases,” he told KPAX.
Granath says in biology an outcome is not always caused by just a single thing, so it’s hard to say without more research.
“Toxoplasma gondii plus genetics equals suicide. Toxoplasma gondii alone, no genetic tendencies [and] no suicide – who knows?”
So how do we get it?
Generally from eating raw meat but the journey the parasite will often take before infecting a human is equally as strange.
Toxoplasma gondii creates a phenomenon called “fatal attraction syndrome” in rodents, which eliminates their fear of cats.
“They will actually walk up to cats and of course they will then get eaten by the cat and the cat will get infected with the parasite,” Granath said. “So, it almost seems like the parasite is manipulating the intermediate host to enhance its transmission to the next host – or the cat.”
Granath said cats are the parasite’s favorite host because it’s the only host animal where Toxoplasma gondii can efficiently replicate itself.
The parasite’s eggs are shed in the cat’s feces and whether that’s in a litterbox or outside in the environment, the eggs are often accidentally ingested by humans.
While it’s something to be aware of, it’s not a reason to panic, according to Ferguson.
“There’s no correlation between like petting your cat and having the cat in the household as far as an increased risk for humans,” he said.
The best way to avoid Toxoplasma gondii is to clean your cat’s litter box often and cook meat well.
According to the CDC, of those infected, very few have symptoms because a healthy person’s immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness.
Generally it’s the immune-suppressed individuals and pregnant women who are at that the greatest risk of toxoplasmosis.
By Brin Merkley – KPAX News