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To assess differences in cognition functions and gross brain structure in children seven years after an episode of severe acute malnutrition (SAM), compared with other Malawian children.
Prospective longitudinal cohort assessing school grade achieved and results of five computer-based (CANTAB) tests, covering three cognitive domains. A subset underwent brain MRI scans which were reviewed using a standardized checklist of gross abnormalities and compared with a reference population of Malawian children.
Children discharged from SAM treatment in 2006 and 2007 (n 320; median age 9·3 years) were compared with controls: siblings closest in age to the SAM survivors and age/sex-matched community children.
SAM survivors were significantly more likely to be in a lower grade at school than controls (adjusted OR = 0·4; 95 % CI 0·3, 0·6; P < 0·0001) and had consistently poorer scores in all CANTAB cognitive tests. Adjusting for HIV and socio-economic status diminished statistically significant differences. There were no significant differences in odds of brain abnormalities and sinusitis between SAM survivors (n 49) and reference children (OR = 1·11; 95 % CI 0·61, 2·03; P = 0·73).
Despite apparent preservation in gross brain structure, persistent impaired school achievement is likely to be detrimental to individual attainment and economic well-being. Understanding the multifactorial causes of lower school achievement is therefore needed to design interventions for SAM survivors to thrive in adulthood. The cognitive and potential economic implications of SAM need further emphasis to better advocate for SAM prevention and early treatment.
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