Cats are one of mankind’s most beloved pets, but BYU professors found they are the primary carrier of Toxoplasmosis, an infectious disease that affects more than 1 million Americans each year.
A group of BYU professors from both the psychology and sociology departments recently conducted a study on the parasite, and the results found a correlation between Toxoplasmosis gondii and decline in cognitive function. Their study, “Association between Latent Toxoplasmosis and Cognition in Middle-aged Adults: A Cross-sectional Study,” was published earlier this year.
Although cats are not the only way to come in contact with the parasite, they are the only hosts in which the parasite can reproduce. Felines, which release the disease in their feces, are the primary source of human infection. The parasite can also be contracted from soil, raw meats, unwashed vegetables, unpasteurized dairy products and even from mother contact between a mother and fetus.
Shawn Gale, an associate professor of psychology at BYU, was in the group of professors conducting the study. Gale estimated that 25 percent of the world has the parasite. In some countries as much as 70 percent of the population is infected.
In most cases, those who have come in contact with Toxoplasmosis are asymptomatic. They show little or no signs of an infection, which gives the disease the name “Latent Toxoplasmosis.” Although the infection has no physical symptoms, victims experience psychological and sociological symptoms.
“Toxoplasmosis has an affinity for muscle and nervous system tissue,” Gale said.
Gale believes this is what causes the cognitive decline. Although the decline in cognitive function has been directly connected with the parasite, questions remain as to how it affects cognition.
“We are still unsure if the parasite has a direct effect in the brain or if the parasite is using resources that diminish cognitive function,” Gale said.
Lance Erickson, an associate professor of sociology, and the only sociologist involved in the study, explained some of the parasite’s social implications. Erickson determined that disadvantaged individuals with low economic status are exposed to less sanitary environments and are more likely to contract Toxoplasmosis. Erickson found its effects on people of different social classes startling.
“Cognition is related to how people can function and the roles they can play in society,” Erickson said. “If we have a scenario where disadvantaged groups face all of these roadblocks in society, it creates an additional disadvantage for them that often gets treated like it’s a cultural phenomenon.”
Low economic status or not, this parasite is no respecter of persons. Its effects are far reaching, whether it is contracted through a person’s environment, food or household pet.