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Mercyhurst shares research on human parasite with FDA

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Thomas Cook

A serious albeit underappreciated public health problem being studied at Mercyhurst University – the potential psychological effects of latent infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii – will be discussed before the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Wednesday, Feb. 17.

Dr. Thomas Cook of the Mercyhurst University Department of Public Health, who conducted the research with colleagues from Maryland and Germany, will appear before the FDA to discuss the findings and what, he says, the CDC has called “a neglected human infection.”

Cook is part of a panel that will address the potential health impacts of the parasite, which is found in feline feces. Each year in the United States, scientists say cats deposit about 1.2 million metric tons of feces into the environment, some of which is laden with Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan that can cause the disease toxoplasmosis in humans. Additional concerns have been raised by studies linking T. gondii to schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, brain cancer and even to kids' trouble in school.

Estimates are that between 30 and 50 percent of the world’s population has been exposed to and may be infected with T. gondii, although the infection produces no readily observable symptoms in healthy humans but can cause serious illness in individuals with weakened immune systems.

The asymptomatic state, referred to as a latent infection, has been associated with adverse psychological effects in humans, including subtle behavioral and personality changes, the subject of Cook’s research.

Cook noted that his research found the latent infection resulted in heightened self-aggression and reactive aggression in T. gondii positive women and higher impulsivity in men.

A recent story in the New York Times titled A Parasite, Leopards, and a Primate’s Fear and Survival details growing evidence of the subtle behavioral effects of T. gondii in both human and non-human hosts.