A few years
back, I watched a neighborhood woman slowly transform
into the Crazy Cat Lady. It began with a couple strays she
took in from the yard, and within the course of maybe 18 months
evolved into eleven indoor cats and uncountable feral felines
for which she left bowls of food and water on her porch. She
stopped leaving her house except to go to Barnes and Starbucks
and of course the pet supply store.
of this frightened me. My neighbor had been a high-powered
executive at an accounting firm. How had she transformed into
a reclusive, slipper-footed bookworm, often seen on her porch
wearing her pajamas well into the afternoon? (Although I must
admit, she did seem happier this way.) Some scientists believe
we’ve been looking at the problem in reverse; it’s not that
crazy people like and understand cats; it’s that cats make
your friend the cat lover over the head with this issue hollering how you
told her so, let’s be more specific. Most people have heard that pregnant
women shouldn’t clean the litter box because cat feces is a source of Toxoplasma
gondii, a parasite causing a disease known as toxoplasmosis. If contracted
during development in the womb, this disease can result in blindness and mental
retardation. This has been known for a long time. But recently, researchers
are testing theories about a possible link between Toxoplasma gondii
Your DNA contains
things called “endogenous retroviruses.” These are remnants of ancestral viral
infection, and are considered mostly harmless, though they are suspected of
involvement in some autoimmune diseases, especially multiple sclerosis and
some cancers. It’s now theorized by some researchers that Toxoplasma triggers
one of these retroviruses, which in turn begins to slowly damage hippocampus
area of the brain. The damage doesn’t evidence until the brain stops growing
in adolescence. (Most schizophrenia develops between ages 16 and 30.)
One study indicated
a higher incidence of cat ownership among the parents of children who developed
schizophrenia (51 percent) versus those who did not (38 percent). Schizophrenia
was relatively rare in Europe until the late 19th century; this is when the
cat became a trendy pet, much like the purse dogs made popular today by Paris
Hilton and her ilk. Similar trends have been tracked in the States. Also,
seasonal correlations are observable--a statistically relevant higher number
of individuals born in the winter or spring months develop schizophrenia.
Seasonal correlations are considered one telltale sign of infectious agents.
Bleeding from the eyes is another.
“evidence” is mostly circumstantial and certainly based on conjecture, like
observing that people eat more ice cream in the summer and homicide
goes up in the summer and then concluding that consumption of ice cream sparks
the desire to kill people. (Although a lack of ice cream has sparked
in me a desire to kill people.)
But it is a phenomenon
worth studying and researching if only for the larger ramifications. The search
for physiological or biological bases of mental illness was largely abandoned
in the 1950s, as Freudian psychoanalysis fully permeated the American psychiatric
profession. In the 1980s the pendulum swung the other way, and genetic explanations
to mental illness were being sought. It was believed that a “schizophrenia
gene” would be identified, solving the mystery.
There were patterns
that genetics could not explain, however, such as higher incidents of schizophrenia
in urban areas and other external influences. Some thirty years ago it was
proposed that most cases of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were perhaps
caused by infectious diseases. This new approach was conceived by E. Fuller
Torrey, a psychiatry professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health
Science. Though many research doctors, on many days himself included, view
his idea with extreme skepticism, he has found collaborators, chief among
them Johns Hopkins virologist Robert Yolken.
led them serendipitously to a cache of 53,000 frozen blood samples originally
taken from pregnant women during the 1950s as part of an anti-polio campaign.
They tracked down the children of these women and found about 100 had developed
schizophrenia. They then tested the blood samples of the mothers for infectious
diseases. Blood levels of antibodies to toxoplasmosis in mothers whose children
who had become schizophrenic at a rate 4.5 times greater than in the other
mothers. There was an even higher incidence – 7.5 times greater – for antibodies
to herpes simplex two.
As a result of
this finding, Torrey and Yolken plan to treat one test group of schizophrenics
with an antibiotic that kills Toxoplasma, and another group with an anti-viral
drug used against the herpes virus. This is a completely new approach to psychopharmacology.
If it proves fruitful, perhaps the treatment of other mental illnesses, such
as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s could also be treated with antibiotics or antivirals.
In the meantime,
don’t toss out your housecat. Unless of course you want to. To put
all this in perspective, Toxoplasma gondii is typically found in the
feces of only about one percent of house cats. The parasite is killed by most
people’s immune systems before it causes the disease toxoplasmosis. My Crazy
Cat Lady neighbor was always a bit of a recluse, really. But don’t be surprised
if after they confirm that cats cause craziness, they discover that purse-sized
dogs cause dumbness.