Recent Study Links T. Gondii Parasite to Suicidal Attempts
Scientists have discovered that a very common and known to be harmless parasite can cause small changes in the brain that might actually lead to suicide attempts.
Toxoplasma gondii, or T. gondii can be found in almost a third of the world’s population. Although in most people it lies dormant, it can also cause toxoplasmosis. People can easily catch it by consuming undercooked meat, especially pork or lamb and by drinking contaminated water. The parasite reproduces in the cells of its primary hosts, all members of the feline family.
Toxoplasmosis can have serious effects on a fetus whose mother develops the disease during pregnancy or on an immunocompromised person. In time, brain inflammation may appear, which will release metabolites into the organism, damaging the brain cells.
Previous studies had found T.gondii responsible for behavioral changes and even suicide attempts. Researchers revealed that suicide victims and depressed patients presented small areas in the cerebrum with evidence of inflammation. A more recent study, led by professor Lena Brundin, has shown that people who are positive for the parasite are seven times more likely to attempt suicide.
Brundin and her team are the first ones to measure scores on a suicide assessment scale from people who have the parasite. They found that those who tested positive for Toxoplasma gondii were placed on a considerably higher spot on the scale, being more susceptible to severe diseases and future suicide attempts. On the other hand, professor Brundin highlighted the fact that for different reasons some individuals are more at risk of developing symptoms than others.
“It is estimated 90 percent of people who attempt suicide have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder. If we could identify those people infected with this parasite, it could help us predict who is at a higher risk”, said Brundin.
With over a decade of work behind, professor Brundin has discovered that the most effective treatment for depression is a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors or SSRIs. These selective inhibitors increase the level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter contributor to feelings of happiness and well-being. Moreover, her research also indicated that a low serotonin level in the cerebrum might be a symptom of depression and not the cause of it.
Depression is more likely to be caused by inflammation in the brain, from an infection or parasite rather than a serotonin reduction. According to professor Brundin, when parts of the brain are inflamed, its chemistry changes, which can easily cause depression and even suicide thoughts.
Lena Brundin also stated that biological changes are good constructive signs in people with suicidal thoughts because it helps develop new treatments in order to prevent this disease and gives patients the help they need to overcome depression.