There are a number of studies that show cats carry a parasite that infects human brains but a recent study revealed that the parasite also takes control of our cells.
"We have decoded how the parasite takes control of immune cells, converting them into moving 'zombies' which spread the parasite in the body," said Antonio Barragan, a professor at Stockholm University and one of the authors of the new study.
The infection toxoplasmosis caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii is widely spread, and 30-50 percent of the global human population are carriers. But, the main host of the parasites are the cats.
Previously, several studies have shown that mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, anxiety disorder and depression are more common in people who are carriers the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. And, it's life-threatening to people with impaired immune systems and unborn foetuses.
Now, researchers at Stockholm University show how the parasite takes control, force immune cells around the body to spread it, and eventually reach the brain.
When humans are infected with Toxoplasma by coming in contact with cat faeces or by eating uncooked meat, the parasite reaches the stomach. Then it passes through the intestinal wall and meets the immune cells that would normally kill it but instead, it secretes the substance GABA that helps in spreading the infection into the body.
According to Science Daily, "The researchers have found a new calcium receptor on immune cells, acting as a mailbox to receive the parasite's orders for the cell to move."
Antonio Barragan says: "The neat thing is that the signal can be inhibited by regular blood pressure medicine."
When mice were given the medicine, the spread of the parasite was inhibited. However, it does not mean that the blood pressure medicine can cure toxoplasmosis.
But, "this helps us understand how the parasite is spread and disease occurs. In the longer term, it may help us develop targeted treatments for infection," said Antonio Barragan.
The study was published in the journal PLOS.