The Guardian has an excellent article on how tropical diseases are a major and largely unrecognised risk to the mental agility of young children as parasites directly or indirectly affect the brain.
Frustratingly, the diseases are widespread and, in many cases, easily treatable, if only the resources were available.
Unfortunately, the same problems that make treatment scarce also mean that the conditions are under-researched and it’s still not clear in many cases how the diseases end up causing mental deterioration.
We are still a long way from understanding the mechanisms by which a given disease may affect cognitive function. For instance, a parasitic worm infection may have its main effect on educational progress by causing diarrhoea and malaise, leading the child to miss school or to be listless and unmotivated in the classroom. But there may be more direct effects on brain development caused by malabsorption of nutrients or iron-deficiency anaemia. It has also been suggested that the toxins generated by some parasites may affect brain function.
Such effects may be temporary, the child catching up with his or her peers once the infection has been cured, or long-lasting, if brain development is disrupted during a critical phase. Research in this area is difficult, but is urgently needed if we are to develop effective preventive strategies.
Link to Guardian piece ‘Out of sight, out of mind’.