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'Saving brains' in developing countries: $11.8 million for innovative ideas worldwide

As many as 200 million children fail to meet their full developmental potential because of the debilitating impact of poverty. Risk factors, such as malnutrition, infection, unhealthy pregnancy and birth complications, as well as an absence of stimulation and nurturing all contribute to the loss of cognitive potential in developing world children and condemn them to impoverished lives.

"The best way to keep a country poor is to rob its children of their full developmental potential," said Dr. Peter A. Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada. "Consistent with Canada's commitment to women's and children's health, the Saving Brains initiative is a bold and transformational approach to addressing the significant challenges facing the developing world. We are investing in improving conditions in the first 1,000 days of children's lives so they can flourish and pull themselves -- and consequently their countries -- out of poverty."

Grand Challenges Canada, which is funded by the Government of Canada, today announced $11.8 million CAD in funding over two years for 11 bold ideas from innovators in the developing world, to address health conditions causing diminished cognitive potential and stunting. These are breakthrough innovations that, in some cases, can improve women's and children's health in wealthy countries too. Among the 11 innovations are:

  • Maternal Depression Interventions. Maternal depression before birth is a proven risk factor for child development. This is a significant barrier to cognitive development in poor countries, where as many as 30% of all perinatal pregnant women suffer from depression. A study in Pakistan indicates that a program to alleviate maternal depression has been extremely successful in addressing symptoms, which resulted in more play with infants up to one year old. The interaction between mother and baby may lead to significant improvements in child development. Now the study will assess the long-term benefits to children up to 12 years old when maternal depression is addressed.

  • Kangaroo Mother Care. Premature birth is a health problem around the world, contributing to about 2 million infant deaths a year. 90% of pre-term births occur in the developing world, and in Canada there has been a gradual rise to 8.1% of all deliveries. Kangaroo Mother Care is a simple but powerful intervention that provides nutrition, warmth and bonding. Potentially, Kangaroo Mother Care is superior to incubator care for brain development. The grant will enable innovators in Colombia and collaborators in Quebec to look at the long-term impact of Kangaroo Mother Care on children's cognitive development, including school achievement, post-secondary education and entry into the workforce.

  • Nutrition Intervention. In Bangladesh, expecting mothers and babies were given Vitamin A supplements, which reduced infant deaths by 15%. This Grand Challenges Canada grant will enable innovators to test the impact of early Vitamin A supplementation on cognitive development on older children who are 7 or 8 years old. Vitamin A may be key to brain and central nervous system development and function.

  • Early Treatment of Malaria in Children to Prevent Brain Injury. As many as 300 million children are infected in malaria-prone countries every year; malaria can attack the brain and the central nervous system. Evidence shows that early treatment of children, using the anti-malarial drug artesunate, can minimize brain injury and improve recovery. In parts of the developing world, it can take on average 15 hours for a patient to reach a hospital − a deadly delay. Innovators in Thailand have proven that administering an artesunate suppository before the long trip to the hospital can ward off brain injury in children. New funding from Grand Challenges Canada will enable the innovators to identify the long- term developmental benefits of this early malaria treatment.

AUDIO: This Grand Challenges Canada podcast contains excerpts of an interview with Dr. Peter A. Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, and Dr. Karlee Silver, Program Officer for Women's and Children's...

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Please see for details of all 11 projects (seven in Asia -- Pakistan (3), Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia; three in Africa -- South Africa (2), Uganda; one in South America -- Columbia):

"These innovations are bold ideas that will have a big impact on cognitive growth in developing world children," said Dr. Karlee Silver, Grand Challenges Canada's Program Officer for Women's and Children's Health.

"These ideas are proven in the short term, but now the funding will provide innovators the opportunity to study the long-term developmental potential of these interventions. For Grand Challenges Canada, it is important to understand how these innovations can impact children as they become adults, to see the real potential for improving lives."

"I am thrilled that these new innovations are constantly being found to make life better for children," said Mrs. Laureen Harper, Honourary Chair of the Saving Brains initiative. "What we all want is that children be all they can be. And that's why the Saving Brains initiative and Grand Challenges Canada is so important above all for the children themselves, but also for their families and the people around them."


Contact: Terry Collins
Sandra Rotman Centre for Global Health

Lyn Whitham


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'Saving brains' in developing countries: $11.8 million for innovative ideas worldwide
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