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Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, president of Stanley Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, is investigating a link between a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii (commonly found in cat droppings) and the onset of schizophrenia later in life.
"Most people have not thought of schizophrenia as being caused by a virus or bacteria or a parasite," Torrey said. "This is a relatively new idea." But Torrey's study is inline with a growing interest in environmental influences on development of mental illnesses.
The preliminary results of the study found a 53 percent increase in risk for schizophrenia if you owned a cat during childhood, but this is still far from conclusive.
By way of demonstration is could be shown that there is also a 51 percent increase in risk if you were breastfed. For an increased risk to be considered 'recognized' by the medical community the increase would have to be above 200 percent.
"We haven't proven anything," Torrey said. "Infectious agents, virus, etcetera really need to be looked at very carefully in these cases."
Nonetheless, Torrey has been testing antibiotics against the feline parasite to treat schizophrenia, and he feels that ingesting or inhaling parasitic spores from cat waste may well cause schizophrenia.
Torrey is still cautious, adding that "Personally I would not buy a kitten for a small child," he said. "I don't think we know enough to be able to say there's no risk. He advises parents not to buy pet cats for young children, and to cover outdoor sandpits to prevent cats from using them as litter boxes.
Certainly the link between cats and toxoplasmosis in pregnant women, women who are about to become pregnant and people with weakened immune systems has been long established and it is generally accepted that such people should avoid cats and cat litter.
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