Saving brains: malaria in pregnancy leads to cognitive deficits in offspring

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The malaria clinic at Nalufenya Children’s Hospital in Jinja, Uganda (Credit: Chloe McDonald)

In the global effort to eradicate malaria, the focus has often been on the number of lives saved—through insecticide-treated bed nets, artemisinin-based therapies, vector control and other strategies. Equally important in this fight is the concept of saving brains, particularly in young children.

Malaria is caused by an infection with the parasite Plasmodium falciparum and can manifest as either an uncomplicated or severe disease. The most severe neurological complication is cerebral malaria, a disease that disproportionally affects young children because they have not yet developed immunity against Plasmodium parasites. More than 785,000 children under the age of nine living in sub-Saharan Africa are affected by cerebral malaria each year. The idea of saving brains becomes especially relevant in this population because cerebral malaria can have long-lasting effects on the cognitive function of these children. An early study found that children who developed cerebral malaria were roughly three and a half times more likely to have a cognitive deficit than children who did not have malaria. Importantly, researchers observed this difference two years after the initial episode of cerebral malaria and long after the disease itself had been treated.

If exposure to malaria at a young age could have long-lasting effects on the cognitive abilities of children, what happened when that exposure happened much earlier? Like during pregnancy? In a new study published in PLoS Pathogens, a team of researchers led by Dr. Chloë McDonald and Dr. Kevin Kain showed that malaria in pregnancy leads to cognitive impairments in the offspring that persist into adulthood. Continue reading

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