A study published Monday in the Archives of General Psychiatry claims that parasite commonly found in cat litter boxes may increase females’ susceptibility to committing suicide.
The infection can be spread during contact with cats or when eating unwashed vegetables or undercooked meat, heightening risk of attempting suicide.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, third of the world’s population is infected with the parasite, which hides in cells in the brain and muscles, often without producing symptoms, reports The Telegraph.
The infection, which is also known as toxoplasmosis, is included into the list of mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, and changes in behaviour.
In the majority of cases toxoplasmosis has been known to affect pregnant women who can pass the infection to their unborn children. So, women expecting a child are advised to avoid changing cat litter boxes.
Doctor Teodor Postolache, the psychiatrist and suicide neuroimmunology expert at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the United States, explained:
“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.”
He added: “We plan to continue our research into this possible connection.”
Doctor Albert Reece, vice president of medical affairs at the University of Maryland, said: “T. gondii infection is a major public health problem around the world, and many people don’t realize they’re infected.”
“Dr Postolache is a leading expert on suicide neuroimmunology. Suicide is a critically important mental health issue. About one million people commit suicide and another 10 million attempt suicide worldwide each year.”
He continued: “We hope that this type of research will one day help us find ways to save many lives that now end prematurely in suicide.”
“There’s a strong association between certain types of infection at certain times in life and various psychiatric problems,” said Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
“We have these simple ideas about infection and illness like you get the influenza virus and then get the flu. One bug equals one illness. What we now know is it’s much more complicated than that. Infections can produce a lot of secondary effects,” he added.
That means T. gondii probably may not be linked to suicide risk, but a more global and complex process may begin with infection, CNN writes.
“It appears that toxoplasmosis does things that unbalance emotional mental functioning,” said Raison, who is mental health expert. “Depending on other risk factors, maybe it makes you depressed, maybe it makes you impulsive.”
However, Dr Postolache calms ‘cat ladies’ that it is not time to start throwing out kitty litter boxes.
“This is a very prevalent parasite, a very successful parasite, that affects one-third of the world population,” Postolache said. “One-third of them are not attempting suicide.”
“All those factors may interact with or moderate the T. gondii,” Postolache explained. “Investigating that will be important.”