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Brain parasite in 1 in 10 Americans might hold key to cure neurological diseases

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

It's not what anyone wants to hear.

The estimate is that there's a parasite living inside one in ten Americans.

In some countries, the number is even higher.

The parasite is called toxoplasma gondii, toxo for short, and typically it's harmless.

You can get it from eating under-cooked meat, especially lamb and pork, and from cat feces.

It's the reason pregnant women are advised not to clean the litter box.

But, toxoplasma has a unique ability that a Tucson scientist is hoping to harness in order to save lives.

University of Arizona Assistant Professor of Neurology and Immunology Dr. Anita Koshy is pointing to a computer screen and explains, "And all these little red dots are individual parasites."

There seem to be thousands inside one brain cell. 

Dr. Koshy is a physician as well as a scientist.

She and her team are studying the parasite that can live in the brain of anything warmblooded, from birds to humans.

"The studies suggest about 10% of the U.S. population has toxoplasma," says Dr. Koshy.

However, for most of us, it appears there's nothing to worry about.

"For people who have an intact immune system we think it does nothing, that it persists in the brain and has no effects," Dr. Koshy says.

But it can be devastating for people who have weakened immune systems.

There's no way to treat toxo.

Dr. Koshy is hoping her research can find a cure for people at risk from toxo, and for many more.

"Anything from multiple sclerosis or just the classic sort of autoimmune disease of the brain to Alzheimer', Parkinson's, Huntington's Disease has inflammatory response, ALS, stroke," says Dr. Koshy.

Dr. Koshy says scientists think, with those conditions the body's immune response is too much and actually damages the brain, while it seems there's no immune response to toxo.

"It hangs out there and is able to hide from the immune system and so my interest is how does it do that," says Dr. Koshy. "If we can learn how toxo does that, then maybe we can employ those same strategies in disease like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's and help dampen the harmful immune response in those diseases."

Do that and you might even save lives.

"The hope is that it would actually be more of a cure. You can almost never redo--undo--some of the damage that's done, but it would be that the damage doesn't get worse. And if you caught it early enough, obviously, you prevent a lot of damage," says Dr. Koshy.

The research still is in it's very early stages.

We'll be checking back with Dr. Koshy to see how it's going.

Remember, you get toxo by ingesting it...eating it.

So, the advice is to stay away from under-cooked meat, especially lamb and pork.

And, if you do clean a litter box, wash your hands very well.

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