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Cerebral Malaria may be a major cause of brain injury in African children

University of Minnesota researchers discovered that one in four child survivors of cerebral malaria shows long-term cognitive impairment. In Sub-Saharan Africa, malaria is the leading cause of death among children. Cerebral malaria, one of the most deadly forms of the disease, affects more than 750,000 children per year.

Chandy John, M.D., the study’s principal investigator and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, worked with neuropsychology expert Michael Boivin, Ph.D., M.P.H., from Michigan State University to evaluate the cognitive function of children with cerebral malaria who were admitted to the Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda. They evaluated 5- to 12-year-olds in three major areas: attention, working memory, and tactile learning six months after the malaria episode and again two years later.

At six months, they found cognitive impairment present in 21 percent of children with cerebral malaria, compared with 6 percent of healthy Ugandan peers. At two years, the impairment rose to 26 percent, compared with 8 percent in the peer group. These findings suggest that impairment manifests itself months after the initial cerebral malaria episode.

“If 26 percent of children with cerebral malaria have long-term cognitive impairment, that means more than 200,000 children a year may have significant long-term brain injury because of cerebral malaria,” John says. In hopes of finding an intervention, he and Boivin are now studying how the body’s response to malaria infection may be leading to brain injury.

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