Florida, US (BBN)-Cats could be making children stupid, according to research that links a parasite carried by the animals with falling reading and memory aptitude in young people.
A study has found performance at school could be affected by Toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled organism that infects about a third of the world’s population and hides in cells in the brain and muscles, often without producing symptoms, reports The Telegraph.
Researchers found the parasite, which grows in the guts of cats and can be spread through contact with faeces, has been linked to reduced memory and reading skills in school-aged children.
Previous research had already linked the parasite to brain tumours in animals.
There is also other evidence that Toxoplasma gondii has effects on the brain leading to changes in behaviour.
However, the latest study by scientists at the University of Iowa and Florida International University suggests Toxoplasma gondii could be having a greater impact than previously thought.
It suggests children who tested positive for the parasite had poorer reading and memory scores in cognitive test, but that vitamin E could help reduce the effects.
Scientists from the University of Iowa wrote: “The results suggest that Toxoplasma gondii seropositivity is associated with poor reading performance and impaired verbal memory.
Serum vitamin E seems to modify the relationship between the parasite and verbal memory with greater Toxoplasma-associated memory impairment found in participants with lower vitamin E level.
Future longitudinal studies are needed to confirm these findings and research could include trials to confirm a possible efficacy of vitamin E supplementation in improving cognitive impairment hypothetically associated with the infection.”
Toxoplasma gondii can trigger a flu-like illness in those infected, but in many patients it can go on to form cysts in brain cells.
Infected rats are already known to lose their fear of cats, making it more likely that they will be killed and eaten.
This is advantageous to the parasite, since it reproduces inside the intestines of cats.
The organism’s egg-like oocysts are shed in cat faeces which may then contaminate food or infect other animals.
Some studies have suggested that Toxoplasma gondii can alter the behaviour of humans too, making men more aggressive and even causing women to cheat on their husbands.
Other research has pointed to a strong link between the parasite and schizophrenia.
Chief causes of infection in humans are consuming undercooked meat, especially lamb, pork and venison, and ingesting water, soil or anything else contaminated by cat faeces.
A symptomless pregnant mother infected by Toxoplasma gondii can pass the parasite on to her unborn baby, which could become fatally ill.
The new research was published in the journal Parasitology.
BBN/ZI/AD-02Jun15-12:50 pm (BST)