Are Cat Parasites Invading Your Brain?

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Meat eaters and cat owners, take note. Parasites carried by cats and found in undercooked meat could permanently change your personality and motor skills.

It may sound like a rare case from an episode of House, but Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that can be found in cat litter boxes and undercooked meat, is linked to changes in personality and even the development of schizophrenia, The Economist recently reported.

And the parasite is more common than you might assume. About 20% of Americans could have the parasite, based on previous research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in some areas of the world, as much as 80% of a population might harbor them, according to previous studies.

Interestingly, rats that come into contact with the parasite experience personality changes that make them more susceptible to being eaten by a cat, which could cause the parasite to return into a feline’s system, according to research at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

However, women infected with the parasite may be "more warm-hearted, outgoing, conscientious, persistent and moralistic," according to a 2007 study published in Schizophrenia Bulletin.

At the same time, people infected with the parasite had poor reaction times, making them more prone to accidents on the road, and schizophrenia patients are more likely to be infected than those who don’t suffer from the mental disorder, the study found. Healthy people who are infected don’t usually require treatment, but those with compromised immune systems or who are pregnant can be treated with prescription drugs.

Exposure to cat feces and affected undercooked meat doesn’t quite have a causal relationship with these conditions, however. Pre-existing behaviors or personalities, like the urge to nurture a pet, may make a person more likely to be exposed to the parasite in the first place.

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