Toxoplasma gondii and Schizophrenia

 

E. Fuller Torrey* and Robert H. Yolken†*Stanley Medical Research Institute, Bethesda, Maryland, USA; and †Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Suggested citation for this article: Torrey EF, Yolken RH. Toxoplasma gondii and schizophrenia.
Emerg Infect Dis [serial online] Nov 2003 [date cited]. Available from: URL: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol9no11/03-0143.htm
 
Recent epidemiologic studies indicate that infectious agents may contribute to some cases of schizophrenia. In animals, infection with Toxoplasma gondii can alter behavior and neurotransmitter function. In humans, acute infection with T. gondii can produce psychotic symptoms similar to those displayed by persons with schizophrenia. Since 1953, a total of 19 studies of T. gondii antibodies in persons with schizophrenia and other severe psychiatric disorders and in controls have been reported; 18 reported a higher percentage of antibodies in the affected persons; in 11 studies the difference was statistically significant. Two other studies found that exposure to cats in childhood was a risk factor for the development of schizophrenia. Some medications used to treat schizophrenia inhibit the replication of T. gondii in cell culture. Establishing the role of T. gondii in the etiopathogenesis of schizophrenia might lead to new medications for its prevention and treatment.
Schizophrenia is a pervasive neuropsychiatric disease of uncertain cause that affects approximately 1% of the adult population in the United States and Europe. An increased occurrence of schizophrenia in family members of affected persons suggests that genetic factors play a role in its etiology, and some candidate predisposing genes have been identified. Environmental factors are also important. Epidemiologic studies, for example, have established that winter-spring birth, urban birth, and perinatal and postnatal infection are all risk factors for the disease developing in later life. These studies have rekindled an interest in the role of infectious agents in schizophrenia, a concept first proposed in 1896 (1). This review focuses on evidence specifically linking infection with Toxoplasma gondii to the etiology of some cases of schizophrenia.
 
T. gondii is an intracellular parasite in the phylum Apicomplexa. Its life cycle can be completed only in cats and other felids, which are the definitive hosts. However, T. gondii also infects a wide variety of intermediate hosts, including humans. In many mammals, T. gondii is known to be an important cause of abortions and stillbirths and to selectively infect muscle and brain tissue. A variety of neurologic symptoms, including incoordination, tremors, head-shaking, and seizures, have been described in sheep, pigs, cattle, rabbits, and monkeys infected with T. gondii (2).
Humans may become infected by contact with cat feces or by eating undercooked meat. The importance of these modes of transmission may vary in different populations (3). Individual response to Toxoplasma infection is determined by immune status, timing of infection, and the genetic composition of the host and the organism (4).
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