Don’t judge me, but one of the biggest perks of being pregnant (as far as I was concerned) was that my husband had to change the cat litter. Why? Well, in case you’re unaware, cat poo carries toxoplasma gandii, a parasite that can cause serious damage (and death) to a developing fetus. But since a large percentage of adult cat owners carry the parasite without any negative side effects, it’s long been thought to be harmless once you make it this side of the womb.

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Recently, however, several studies have linked the parasite and the ensuing infection, toxoplasmosis, to a whole host of neurological disorders. Which kind of blows the harmless thing out of the water, if you ask me.

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The study, which combines the research and efforts of scientists from 30 different institutions, links the parasite to epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cancer. One of the study’s author’s, Dennis Steinler, says that their findings are “a paradigm shifter” that inserts infection into the discussion surrounding these devastating non-infectious illnesses.

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T. gondii secretes proteins that can alter and manipulate the brain chemistry of their infected hosts, triggering changes that the new study claims can lead to neurodegenerative diseases. Researcher Rima McLeod, from the University of Chicago, explains further:

At the core is alignment of characteristics of the parasite itself, the genes it expresses in the infected brain, susceptibility genes that could limit the host’s ability to prevent infection, and genes that control susceptibility to other diseases present in the human host.

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In short, it screws with your immune system – which means a person’s genetic makeup and medical predispositions play a role in how Toxo winds up acting.

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The team analyzed data from the National Collaborative Chicago-Based Congenital Toxoplasmosis Study, which has been monitoring 246 infants born with congenital toxoplasmosis since 1981. The results show that fragments of microRNA and proteins found in the children’s brains matched biomarkers in the brains of patients with the aforementioned neurodegenerative diseases.

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The findings are concerning, to say the least, since there are estimates that as much as half the global population is infected – but maybe don’t get rid of your cats just yet. There’s still a lot to learn about the cat-human-toxo link, about who is most susceptible, and whether or not we can prevent the connection from doing its worst.

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“We have to translate aspects of this study into preventative treatments that include everything from drugs to diet to lifestyle, in order to delay disease onset and progression,” Steinler reminds us.

Which, I mean. Okay. But maybe next time adopt a dog, just to be safe.

h/t: Science Alert

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