UH Researcher Aims to Find Causal Pathways to Mental Retardation Among Children in Rural Zambia

Of the 2.6 billion children in the world, it is estimated that 11% or 291.2 million have one of four developmental disabilities – epilepsy, mental retardation, visual impairment and hearing impairment. Ninety-five percent of these children live in low- and middle-income countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, according to recent estimates.

To find out why, Elena Grigorenko, a researcher at the University of Houston, and her colleagues in the United States and Zambia are embarking on a five-year project in rural Zambia, southern Africa, to study children with intellectual disabilities. The work is funded by a $3.3 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.

Mental retardation is a major public health concern, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the resources to diagnose and remediate it are very limited.”


Elena Grigorenko, 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 intellectual disabilities and provide a detailed description of relevant phenotypes, investigating the etiology of these disabilities,” she said. “We will also document how they are perceived and treated within the community and assess the services they have access to so we can determine which services are still needed. Finally, we want to generate relevant recommendations for policy makers to improve quality of life theirs.”

Zambia is one of the least developed countries in the world with more than half of the country’s population living on less than $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 PhDs in both psychology and genetics. She has 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 between the ages of 3-18.

The research team aims to find approximately 2,000 children with intellectual disabilities in Zambia and 2,000 of their matched siblings, for a total of 4,000 children. Together, they will create a unique multi-level dataset that includes the children’s social context, behavior, brain and genome.

“This dataset will present various manifestations and causal pathways of mental retardation in rural Zambia in particular and sub-Saharan Africa in general,” said Grigorenko.

Grigorenko will work with an extensive team of researchers at UH on the study, including associate professor of computer engineering Luca Pollonini.

This research is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development at the National Institutes of Health under award number R01HD109307. The content of this press release is solely the responsibility of the research team and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Institute of Health.

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