Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun
July 15, 2010
Johns Hopkins University scientists trying to determine why people develop serious mental illness are focusing on an unlikely factor: a common parasite spread by cats.
The researchers say the microbes, called Toxoplasma gondii, invade the human brain and appear to upset its chemistry - creating, in some people, the psychotic behaviors recognized as schizophrenia.If tackling the parasite can help solve the mystery of schizophrenia, "it's a pretty good opportunity ... to relieve a pretty large burden of disease," said Dr. Robert H. Yolken, director of developmental neurobiology at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
The cause of schizophrenia is unknown, but both genetic and environmental factors likely play a part, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Yolken is among the researchers worldwide examining whether certain viral infections can increase the risk of developing the illness. Other studies have focused on flu and herpes viruses as possible triggers.
The notion that there are links between infections and schizophrenia is "intriguing," said Dr. Ken Duckworth, a clinical psychiatrist and medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "There's so much we don't know about schizophrenia that anybody paying attention would welcome any thoughtful inquiry. And the infectious disease corner of the field is a growth stock right now," he said. "If true, it would have a preventive implication which is profound."