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UH Researcher Aims to Uncover Causes of Developmental Disabilities in African Children – University of Houston

Elena Grigorenko Leads $3.3 Million Project in Rural Zambia
By Rebeca Hawley 713-743-6773

Of the 2.6 billion children in the world, 11% or 291.2 million are estimated to have one of four developmental disabilities – epilepsy, intellectual disability, vision loss and hearing loss. Ninety-five percent of these children live in low- and middle-income countries, predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, according to recent estimates.
To find out why, University of Houston researcher Elena Grigorenko and her colleagues in the U.S. and Zambia are embarking on a five-year project in rural Zambia, southern Africa, to study children with developmental disabilities. The work is funded by a $3.3 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.
“Developmental disabilities present a major public health concern, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where resources to diagnose and remediate them are severely limited,” said Grigorenko, a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of Psychology.
“My research group and our partners at the Macha Research Trust in Zambia aim to establish a large sample of children with developmental disabilities and provide a detailed characterization of the relevant phenotypes, studying the cause of these disabilities,” she said. “We will also document how they are regarded and treated within the community and assess the services they have access to so we can determine what services are still needed. Ultimately, we want to generate relevant recommendations for policy makers to improve their quality of life.”
Zambia is one the least developed countries in the world with more than half of its population living on less that $2.00 a day.
Grigorenko, director of the GENESIS (Genetic and Neurobehavioral Systems) laboratory at UH’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, holds doctorate degrees in both psychology and genetics. She’s published 500 peer-reviewed articles, books, book chapters and has worked with children and their families in sub-Saharan Africa for over a decade. This latest project will focus on children aged 3-18 years old.
The research team aims to find approximately 2,000 children with developmental disabilities in Zambia and 2,000 of their matched siblings, for a total of 4,000 children. They will collectively generate a unique multi-level dataset that includes the children’s social context, behavior, brain and genome data.
“This dataset will present a range of manifestations and causal pathways to developmental disabilities in rural Zambia in particular and sub-Saharan Africa in general,” Grigorenko said.
Grigorenko will work with her extensive team of researchers at UH on the study, including associate professor of computer engineering technology, Luca Pollonini.
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