The harm done by konzo – a disease overshadowed by the war and drought it tends to accompany – goes beyond its devastating physical effects to impair children's memory, problem solving and other cognitive functions.
Even children without physical symptoms of konzo appear to lose cognitive ability when exposed to the toxin that causes the disease, researchers report in the journal Pediatrics.
"That's what's especially alarming," said lead author Michael Boivin, a Michigan State University associate professor of psychiatry and of neurology and ophthalmology. "We found subtle effects that haven't been picked up before. These kids aren't out of the woods, even if they don't have the disease."
Konzo means "bound legs" in the African Yaka language, a reference to how its victims walk with feet bent inward after the disease strips away motor control in their lower limbs. Its onset is rapid, and the damage is permanent.
People contract konzo by consuming poorly processed bitter cassava, a drought-resistant staple food in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Typically, the plant's tuber is soaked for a few days, then dried in the sun and ground into flour – a process that degrades naturally occurring cyanide.
"As long as they do that, the food's pretty safe," said Boivin, who began studying konzo in 1990 as a Fulbright researcher in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "But in times of war, famine, displacement and hardship, people take shortcuts. If they're subsisting on poorly processed cassava and they don't have other sources of protein, it can cause permanent damage to the nervous system.
"Konzo doesn't make many headlines because it usually follows other geopolitical aspects of human suffering," he added. "Still, there are potentially tens of millions of kids at risk throughout central and western Africa. The public health scope is huge."
To find out if the disease affects cognitive function, Boivin and colleagues from Oregon Health and Science University turned to the war-torn Congo. They randomly selected 123 children with konzo and 87 neighboring children who showed no signs of the disease but whose blood and urine samples indicated elevated levels of the toxin.
Using cognitive tests, the researchers found that children with konzo had a much harder time using working memory to solve problems and organize visual and spatial information.
They also found that konzo and non-konzo children from the outbreak area showed poor working memory and impaired fine-motor skills when compared to a reference group of children from a part of the region unaffected by the disease.
Konzo's subtler impacts might seem minor compared to its striking physical symptoms, but Boivin noted that the cognitive damage is similar to that caused by chronic low-grade exposures to other toxic substances such as lead.
Scientists eventually may be able to prevent such damage by creating nontoxic cassava varieties and introducing other resilient crops to affected regions, Boivin said. Meanwhile, public health education programs are under way to help stop outbreaks.
"For now," he said, "if we could just avoid the worst of it – the full-blown konzo disease that has such devastating effects for children and families – that's a good start."
The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health.
Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.
Andy McGlashen | EurekAlert!
Advanced analysis of brain structure shape may track progression to Alzheimer's disease
26.10.2016 | Massachusetts General Hospital
Indian roadside refuse fires produce toxic rainbow
26.10.2016 | Duke University
Physicists from the University of Würzburg have designed a light source that emits photon pairs. Two-photon sources are particularly well suited for tap-proof data encryption. The experiment's key ingredients: a semiconductor crystal and some sticky tape.
So-called monolayers are at the heart of the research activities. These "super materials" (as the prestigious science magazine "Nature" puts it) have been...
Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.
This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...
Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion
Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...
Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.
"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...
In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.
A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...
14.10.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
12.10.2016 | Event News
28.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering
28.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy
28.10.2016 | Life Sciences