Could schizophrenia be caused by a parasite?

A parasite that can be picked up through tainted soil, undercooked meat and cat feces may account for a significant amount of cases of schizophrenia, according to a new study from Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine.

Researcher Gary Smith, professor of population biology and epidemiology at the university, found through epidemiological modeling methods that about one-fifth of schizophrenia patients develop the mental health condition from the Toxoplasma gondii parasite.

The parasite is found in both the brain and the muscles, and some research suggests that antipsychotic drugs can stop the parasite from reproducing.

Rats with the parasite have shown significant changes in behavior and personality, a news release on the study reported.

A common infection

In the U.S. alone, just over one-fifth of the population is infected with the T. gondii parasite, but most aren't aware of its presence.

Certain populations with the parasite may be more vulnerable than others, like pregnant women, people with HIV or other individuals with weakened immune systems.

"Infection with Toxoplasma is very common, so, even if only a small percentage of people suffer adverse consequences, we could be talking about problems that affect thousands and thousands of people," Smith said.

When it comes to schizophrenia, considering the link between the disorder and the T. gondii parasite is important, Smith said, despite pervasive doubt in the medical community.

"In other words, we ask, if you could stop infections with this parasite, how many cases [of schizophrenia] could you prevent? Over a lifetime, we found that you could prevent one-fifth of all cases. That, to me, is significant."

Source: University of Pennsylvania
Image courtesy of anankkml/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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