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!
Organ-on-a-chip mimics heart's biomechanical properties
23.02.2017 | Vanderbilt University
Researchers identify cause of hereditary skeletal muscle disorder
22.02.2017 | Klinikum der Universität München
In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport
Cells need to repair damaged DNA in our genes to prevent the development of cancer and other diseases. Our cells therefore activate and send “repair-proteins”...
The Fraunhofer IWS Dresden and Technische Universität Dresden inaugurated their jointly operated Center for Additive Manufacturing Dresden (AMCD) with a festive ceremony on February 7, 2017. Scientists from various disciplines perform research on materials, additive manufacturing processes and innovative technologies, which build up components in a layer by layer process. This technology opens up new horizons for component design and combinations of functions. For example during fabrication, electrical conductors and sensors are already able to be additively manufactured into components. They provide information about stress conditions of a product during operation.
The 3D-printing technology, or additive manufacturing as it is often called, has long made the step out of scientific research laboratories into industrial...
Nature does amazing things with limited design materials. Grass, for example, can support its own weight, resist strong wind loads, and recover after being...
Nanometer-scale magnetic perforated grids could create new possibilities for computing. Together with international colleagues, scientists from the Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) have shown how a cobalt grid can be reliably programmed at room temperature. In addition they discovered that for every hole ("antidot") three magnetic states can be configured. The results have been published in the journal "Scientific Reports".
Physicist Dr. Rantej Bali from the HZDR, together with scientists from Singapore and Australia, designed a special grid structure in a thin layer of cobalt in...
13.02.2017 | Event News
10.02.2017 | Event News
09.02.2017 | Event News
24.02.2017 | Life Sciences
24.02.2017 | Life Sciences
24.02.2017 | Trade Fair News