Toxoplasmosis: How Parasites in Your Cat Can Infect Your Brain


Now this is a common stereotype: the single
lady who lives next door and you hear meowsechoing through the walls. Or maybe it’s your aunt, or grandma, with
a whole clowder of cats. Whoever it is, she is known as the “crazy
cat lady. ”
And stereotypes or not, there could be someactual psychological risks from hanging around
so many kitties… if just one of them isharboring a parasite. See, there’s a parasite that only sexually
reproduces only inside cats and it’s calledToxoplasma gondii. And if that parasite gets into a human, it
can result in a full-blown infection calledtoxoplasmosis, which could be bad news for
your body and your mind. T. gondii have really tough eggs. And when animals like rats or birds eat them,
even just through contaminated water, theybecome intermediate hosts. Once that bird or rat makes it’s way inside
of a cat — however that happens — in akitty’s gut, the parasite will mature, mate,
and sexually reproduce. And, eventually, the cat will poop out more
eggs, which continues the cycle. In a human, or other intermediate host, T.
gondii can still hatch but only reproduce asexually. They’re dangerous though, because parasites
can enter your bloodstream and infect almostany kind of cell — including immune cells. An immune cell is like a Trojan horse, letting
T. gondii sneak around and invade more specializedtissues like muscle cells and brain cells. Once parasites get into your central nervous
system, they can hide out in cysts, and infectyou for life. But you might not show any symptoms. Or if you do, it’s just like a mild flu. Some estimates even say over a third of all
humans have toxoplasmosis without knowing it. As a human’s immune system gets weaker over
time, the parasitic cysts can cause some moresevere symptoms. An infected person can develop muscle weakness,
poor coordination, seizures, or permanentdamage to the brain and eyes. Which is not great. And if a pregnant woman is infected, she could
pass the parasites onto her baby. On top of that, there’s evidence that links
T. gondii infection to psychological conditions, too. One study monitored the mental health of nearly
46,000 women from Denmark who had their newbornbabies screened for T. gondii antibodies,
which were passed on. The researchers then followed up on the mothers’
medical and psychiatric information for upto 14 years, and found that infected women
seemed to have more risk of depression, anxiety,and self-harm later in life. Many studies suggest that T. gondii affects
how a couple different neurotransmitters work, too. These are the chemicals that travel between
neurons all over the body, not just in the brain. And when neurotransmitters get imbalanced,
that can lead to physical and mental illnesses. One 2011 mouse study from the University of
Leeds showed that T. gondii infection in braincells led to higher dopamine levels, because
the parasite makes an enzyme that controlshow dopamine is made. Dopamine helps regulate parts of the braintied to pleasure, mostly the amygdala and
nucleus accumbens. But too much dopamine flooding the brain has
been linked with illnesses that distort thoughtsand moods, like psychosis, schizophrenia,
and bipolar disorder. A more recent study in 2016 showed that T.
gondii infection can also mess up a proteinthat transports glutamate, which is usually
an excitatory neurotransmitter that makesneurons more easily activated. Failed transporters lead to a glutamate build-up
in the space between neurons all over thenervous system, like a chemical traffic jam. This is called excitotoxicity, and it basically
overstimulates the nerve cells, causing partsof them to go haywire and start breaking down. So dysregulation of glutamate is linked with
neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, multiplesclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. And another study from 2012 found that parasite-hijackedimmune cells start releasing a bunch of GABA. GABA is usually an inhibitory neurotransmitter,
which means it can keep neurons from firing as much. When it interacts with the amygdala, for instance,
GABA can help control feelings of fear and anxiety. So way too much GABA could presumably make
someone feel fearless — like how severelyinfected mice seem to be less afraid of cats,
and get eaten more often. That way, the parasites can continue their
life cycles. But even with all this research, other studies
have suggested there isn’t a significantassociation between toxoplasmosis and mental
disorders. A study from Duke University took blood samples
from just over 800 people to look for T. gondiiantibodies, and did other surveys and tests
to collect data about their behavior. About 28% of their participants tested positive
for parasite antibodies. But the researchers didn’t find a significant
association with schizophrenia, depression,or other mental disorders, or any link to
impulsive activities like crime or car accidents. So research in this field is tricky, because
animal models like mice aren’t entirelycomparable to humans. But it’d also be super unethical to do controlled
experimental studies on humans, like givingpeople toxoplasmosis and monitoring their
brains. But, there is no reason to ditch your cats. They bring happiness and cuddles!There is so many positive health outcomes
associated with having a fuzzy thing in your house. Just be careful around their poop, like, make
sure it doesn’t go in your mouth. Try to keep them from eating mice and birds,
if that’s possible. And make sure your food is cooked properly
so you don’t accidentally eat any uncookedparasite eggs. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Psych, which was brought to you byour patrons on Patreon. <3If you’d like to help us make more episodes
like this, which we love to do and we lovethat you love for us to do it, you can go
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