If you're a cat lover — and also have children — it's a good bet your obstetrician told you not clean out the cat's litter box when you were pregnant.
But now, there is new research going on in Virginia and Maryland that now links a parasite in cat feces to mental illness.
"Yes, I'm scared, I could tell you that picture has a headache," said Gerald.
Gerald is highly delusional — at times, self destructive — and takes enough anti-psychotic medications to send most adults into a coma. He has schizophrenia.
Medical science has searched for the cause of this mental illness for decades — one answer may be as close as your cat's litter box.
Cats can play host to a single-cell parasite called Toxoplasa Gondii — it's excreted in their feces, and can be passed to humans when you clean out the litter box.
Doctors have recognized this since the 1960's, when pregnant women were told not to clean out a cat's litter box, for fear of infecting the fetus. The result can be severe brain damage.
But in adult men, studies suggest t-gondii, as its called, can change personality and behavior, making you introverted, paranoid, more of a risk-taker behind the wheel of a car — even more likely to commit suicide.
"In psychiatry — there is growing acceptance of the relationship between the rarisitic infection and psychotic disorders," said Dr. Teodor Postalache, a psychiatrist and the director of the mood and anxiety program at the University of Maryland.
His team has conducted several studies that support the notion that the parasite is linked to higher suicide rates. Dr. Postalache thinks the parasite infects a part of the brain that triggers an increase in dopamine.
"Increased levels of dopomine have been related to schizophrenia for instance — also arousal, agitation, insomnia — all these factors represent suicide risk factors."
The Toxoplasma Gondii parasite can also be found in some raw meat and unwashed vegetables, and most people who come in contact with have nothing to fear from it. And according to Dr. Postalache — there's no reason to get rid of your kitty.
"If you have cats, by no means, don't bring them to the animal shelter."
It's estimated that nearly 20 percent of all Americans have been infected with t-gondii at some time or another.
But again, unless you're pregnant, or your immune system is compromised in some way — it shouldn't be a major worry.
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