Eideard

A common parasite may be increasing suicide risk among women

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Women infected with the Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) parasite, which is spread through contact with cat feces or eating undercooked meat or unwashed vegetables, are at increased risk of attempting suicide, according to a new study of more than 45,000 women in Denmark…

“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. We plan to continue our research into this possible connection,” says Teodor T. Postolache, M.D., the senior author…a senior consultant on suicide prevention…

About one-third of the world’s population is infected with the parasite, which hides in cells in the brain and muscles, often without producing symptoms. The infection, which is called toxoplasmosis, has been linked to mental illness, such as schizophrenia, and changes in behavior…

The T. gondii parasite thrives in the intestines of cats, and it is spread through oocysts passed in their feces. All warm-blooded animals can become infected through ingestion of these oocysts. The organism spreads to their brain and muscles, hiding from the immune system within “cysts” inside cells. Humans can become infected by changing their infected cats’ litter boxes, eating unwashed vegetables, drinking water from a contaminated source, or more commonly, by eating undercooked or raw meat that is infested with cysts. Not washing kitchen knives after preparing raw meat before handling another food item also can lead to infection. Pregnant women can pass the parasite directly to their fetuses and are therefore advised not to change cat litter boxes to avoid possible infection.

The study found that women infected with T. gondii were one and a half times more likely to attempt suicide compared to those who were not infected, and the risk seemed to rise with increasing levels of the T. gondii antibodies. Previous mental illness did not appear to significantly alter these findings…

Dr. Postolache stresses that further research is needed to learn more about the connection between T.gondii and suicide…He notes that one of the strengths of this study was that researchers were able to adjust for various factors, such as prior history of mental illness…not only in the subjects, but also in their parents. They also had access to a tremendous amount of information as a result of Denmark’s multiple registries and health care system, which provides free medical care for residents.

“Is the suicide attempt a direct effect of the parasite on the function of the brain or an exaggerated immune response induced by the parasite affecting the brain? We do not know. In fact, we have not excluded reverse causality as there might be risk factors for suicidal behavior that also make people more susceptible to infection with T. gondii,” Dr. Postolache says. “If we can identify a causal relationship, we may be able to predict those at increased risk for attempting suicide and find ways to intervene and offer treatment.”

Part of the problem posting on blogs about scientific research is that scientists are way too reasonable, too conservative, too cautious to lurch off into sensational conclusions. That this study – and those to follow – has such scary potential is reason enough for my post. And it’s also my responsibility to keep my eyes open for what the good doctor concludes – next.

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One Response

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  1. Looking around online, this morning, tests for toxoplasmosis appear to run $130 – 250 depending on availability, healthcare plan, etc..

    Been having a surprising amount of depression? emotional out of sorts? It might be worth it.

    moss

    July 3, 2012 at 8:08 am


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