Posted on Aug 31, 2017

USF College of Nursing Receives $2.6 million NIH Grant to Study Link Between Pregnancy, Depression and a Parasite

USF College of Nursing Receives $2.6 million NIH Grant to Study Link Between Pregnancy, Depression and a Parasite

Dr. Maureen Groer heads a group of USF Health researchers in a five-year study examining the relationship between pregnant Hispanic women, depression and the Toxoplasma parasite

Tampa, FL (August 31, 2017) – The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) has awarded more than $2.6 million to the University of South Florida College of Nursing to study the relationship between depression and a common parasite and how it affects the brain of pregnant Hispanic women.

Maureen Groer, PhD, Gordon Keller professor at the USF College of Nursing, will lead a group of USF Health researchers in a five-year study examining whether Hispanic women, who carry the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, have a greater risk of the infection reactivating during pregnancy.

The project is significant because it is the largest study ever done on Hispanic women infected with the parasite. The Toxoplasma parasite is a common organism that can be transferred through eating undercooked meat or touching cat feces.

The study could help pinpoint one of the causes of prenatal and postpartum depression and lead to different treatments for chronic toxoplasmosis.

Pregnant women, who have a weaker immune system, are more susceptible to the infection, which can cause brain and eye damage and result in personality changes. Once infected, the parasite normally lives in the brain in a dormant state.

“It would be the first large study to measure the immune changes in pregnancy and its effects on chronically infected women,” Dr. Groer said. “So we’re looking at immunity in these women across pregnancy.”

Dr. Groer and her team will screen more than 800 women at Tampa General Hospital’s Genesis Women’s Center to find 480 pregnant Hispanic women — half of the women will have tested positive for the parasite, while the remaining 240 women will not.

Researchers will monitor the two groups during pregnancy and for six weeks after giving birth. The women will undergo blood tests to study chemicals related to depression and eye exams to see if the parasite has formed cysts in the retina.  Scientists will also test the infant’s cord blood to see if the parasite was transferred from the mother.

Dr. Groer believes the women who carry the organism will be more likely to experience prenatal and postpartum depression and have the latent parasite reactivate during pregnancy.

“They had it already, and now their immune system is very different. And some defenses they normally had against the organism might be less effective. So if the organism reactivates, it will reactivate likely in the eye,” she said.

The study, titled “Chronic Toxoplasma gondii, Pregnancy Reactivation, and Perinatal Depression,” focuses on Hispanic women, because a previous USF health study Dr. Groer conducted linking depression and the Toxoplasma gondii parasite noticed a high infection rate among Hispanic women.

Dr. Groer will work with a team of USF Health researchers who specialize in ophthalmology, biological chemistry, molecular medicine, psychiatry, neurosciences, and biostatistics.

The study’s co-investigators within the College of Nursing include Allyson Duffy, PhD, assistant professor; Amanda Elliott, PhD; and Ming Ji, PhD, professor.

Dr. Groer will also collaborate with researchers and physicians from USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, including Andreas Seyfang, PhD, associate professor; Jamie Fernandez, MD, associate professor; Steven Cohen, MD, professor; Karen Bruder, MD, associate professor; and Adetola Louis-Jacques, MD, assistant professor.

Teodor Postolache, MD, a psychiatry professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, will also be a co-investigator. Dietmar Fuchs, an associate professor of biological chemistry at Innsbruck Medical University in Austria, will consult on the project.

The study is supported by NICHD, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NICHD strives to ensure that every child is born healthy and grows up free from disease and disability. For more information about NIH and NICHD visit
Story by Elizabeth Brown, USF College of Nursing