I try to keep up with things going on in the universe. When they discover what they think is a second universe, I write about that. When they banish Pluto from the Solar System, I write about that. I also recently, three months ago to be exact, wrote about the Higgs boson. This was three months to the day before the people at the Cern Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland discovered the existence of the important battleship deck hand bearing that name.
But what I read in the papers last Sunday really takes the cake.
Apparently there is this tiny parasite called a Toxoplasma gondii that is pretty much everywhere and is often found in cats and mice. It is also found in humans, and it is believed that at any one time 10 to 20 percent of us have it in our bodies. We get it by changing cat litter without rubber gloves on, or by eating undercooked meat. Toxoplasma gondii lurks in undercooked meat.
Toxoplasma gondii has not been known to affect the brains of humans until now. It’s been observed to affect the brains of mice though. It creates odd behavior in mice. When a mouse does not have this parasite, it just skitters around normally as it always does. When a cat approaches, it runs away. But when the parasite gets into a mouse, instead of running away, it gets all excited and happy when it sees a cat and runs directly toward him, creating an encounter which is bad news for the mouse.
It took awhile for scientists to discover why mice would do this when they have the parasite but not when they don’t have the parasite. Turns out that Toxoplasma gondii can only complete its reproductive cycle inside the intestines of a cat. So to get there, it has developed something which affects a mouse’s brain. It makes the brain think there is a good sexual time to be had with this cat. He or she smells it in the cat urine. So the mouse, instead of running away, runs TOWARD the cat. Sometimes if there are several mice besotted with the smell of cat urine, all of them run at the cat at the same time. So the cat, with the mice getting all warm and fuzzy, has an appetizer, a main course and a dessert.
So everybody’s happy. The mice are happy. The cat is happy. The Toxoplasma gondii gets to reproduce. I told you this was weird.
Now here is where it gets even weirder. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore headed up by Dr. Teodor Postolache recently completed a study involving adult women in Denmark whose blood contains Toxoplasma gondii. The researchers studied the women of Denmark because Denmark has relentlessly documented the entire health histories of its citizens. Using the women who never had Toxoplasma gondii as a baseline, they looked into what disorders occurred subsequently and more frequently in the Danish women who DID have at one time or another an infestation of Toxoplasma gondii. They found something that sticks out like a sore thumb. The infected women commit suicide at a much higher rate. Yes. You empty the litter box. Then you go jump off a bridge.
The results of this study were published last week in the Archives of General Psychiatry. A Dr. Robert Yolken, who is an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore was interviewed by reporter Jon Bardin of the Los Angeles Times who wrote this article, and Dr. Yolken said that this study was done only with the women and “other smaller studies have been carried out in both men and women and they find the same thing,” that is to say both men and women jump off a bridge after ingesting Toxoplasma gondii. So don’t make your husband change the cat litter to avoid this. It’s not just a women’s problem.
Dr. Postolache, the author of the study, added that this study was no reason to kick out your cat.
“The Number One source is probably undercooked meat,” he told the reporter. Cats may even HELP people contemplating suicide.
“I have seen people at a high risk of suicide where a pet saves them. Pets are dependent, and they provide emotional support, (factors that tend to reduce suicide risk.)”
There’s lots of things going on in the scientific world out there every day, and you can count on Dan’s Papers (and the Los Angeles Times) to keep you abreast of all these latest developments.