They found that contact with the parasite, known as T. gondii, could be linked with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and suicidal behaviour.
This is the first report of its kind to link T. gondi with suicidal behaviour.
Doctor Albert Reece, of the University of Maryland, said: “About one million people commit suicide and another 10 million attempt suicide worldwide each year. We hope that this type of research will one day help us find ways to save many lives that now end prematurely in suicide.”
The T. Gondi parasite lives in the intestines of cats and can spread out through their faeces to infect any other warm-blooded animal which accidentally ingests the parasite. The organism can then spread into the animal’s brain and muscles, hiding from the destructive power of the immune system in ‘cysts’ inside cells.
Humans can catch the parasite when they change their cat’s litter boxes, eat unwashed vegetables or eat undercooked or raw meat that happens to be infested with the cysts.
Pregnant women can pass the parasite on to their unborn baby and they are advised to avoid changing cat litter in order to avoid infection.
The Danish study revealed that women infected with T. gondii were one and a half times more likely to attempt suicide than women who did not have the parasite. The more T. gondii present, the higher the risk of attempted suicide.
The researchers admit their study is deeply flawed due to being unable to determine the cause of each participant’s suicidal behaviour. They admit that the findings could mean women with psychiatric disturbances are simply predisposed to be more susceptible to catching the parasite than healthy women.
The findings were published online in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
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