We all know about the archetypal character of the crazy cat lady. And odds are if you haven’t experienced this kind of person in real life, you’ve seen a character representative on shows like CSI, The Office, or The Simpsons. The “crazy cat lady” is associated with an aging spinster who attempts to fill the void in her life with an increasing number of feline friends. This kind of person is associated with loneliness and depression, and in the case of The Simpsons — that has pushed them over the edge into insanity. However, there is a new study out right now that suggests that there may also be a physiological connection between cat hoarding and loneliness, depression and suicide.
The study comes out of Denmark, whose researchers found that women who are infected with a certain type of parasite found in cat poop are one and a half times more likely to commit suicide. The bacteria is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii), and not only does being around it make you more likely to commit suicide, but you are more likely to do so through more violent means. In this case violent refers to cutting or stabbing oneself, shooting or jumping from a building, as opposed to overdosing or something like that.
In the past, the parasite has been linked to mental illness and schizophrenia, and with the increase infection comes an increase in these symptoms. The senior author in this study, Teodor Postolache of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Explains that the connection between the parasite and suicide is still tenuous. It should be noted that this is the first large scale study of this type, with 45,000 test subjects.
“We can’t say with certainty that T. gondii caused the women to try to kill themselves, but we did find a predictive association between the infection and suicide attempts later in life that warrants additional studies. We plan to continue our research into this possible connection.”
He goes on to explain that this study has not drawn any conclusions about how T. gondii actually causes suicide.
“Is the suicide attempt a direct effect of the parasite on the function of the brain or an exaggerated immune response induced by the parasite affecting the brain? We do not know. In fact, we have not excluded reverse causality as there might be risk factors for suicidal behavior that also make people more susceptible to infection with T. gondii. If we can identify a causal relationship, we may be able to predict those at increased risk for attempting suicide and find ways to intervene and offer treatment.”
The parasite is fairly common, infecting about one third of the world’s population. Although the most common place to find it is in cat poop, it can also be contracted from undercooked meat and unwashed vegetables.