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Dr. Sarah Benki-Nugent and Kenya Healthy Brain Project receives EDGE Pilot Award for environmental health research

Environmental exposures in sub-Saharan Africa have received little attention despite data suggesting high levels of air pollutants and metals. Environmental pollutants are harmful to infants’ developing brains and may lead to poor neurocognitive outcomes into adolescence and adulthood.  Dr. Sarah Benki-Nugent (Department of Global Health) is leading the newly launched Kenya Healthy Brain Project, a multi-disciplinary maternal-child environmental health research collaborative housed in the University of Nairobi that aims to build local research capacity, with the idea of moving research into policy practice to reduce exposures that threaten cognitive potential in children.

In January, the collaborative received a Global Innovation Fund Award (PI: Benki-Nugent) and in March, received a Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics, and Environment (EDGE) Pilot Award to continue building the early infrastructure needed to study the harmful effects of environmental pollutions on neurocognitive outcomes in infants and children.  Their new one-year project is entitled, “Characterizing perinatal neurotoxicant exposures in a dense urban informal settlement in Nairobi: A community-engaged approach to foster new Maternal Child Environmental Health research and interventions in Kenya” (PI: Catherine Karr, Dept. of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences).  The team includes faculty members from Dept. of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (Anne Riederer, Edmund Seto, and Chris Simpson) and from University of Nairobi (Faridah Were, Dept. of Chemistry, and Elizabeth Maleche-Obimbo, Dept. of Paediatrics and Child Health).  Their work has been featured on the National Institute of Environmental Health’s website.

The team is currently organizing a workshop to convene key government, academic, and NGO stakeholders to discuss potential areas for collaborations and to establish an Advisory Board to help steer research priorities.  They will also develop a household observational checklist for environmental exposures tailored for dense urban settings such as Nairobi, where many families live in informal settlements.

The team will pilot laboratory and field methods for home surveys including air, soil and dust monitoring, and for collecting blood and urine samples from pregnant women for neurotoxic metals and biomarkers for air pollutants. The EDGE award will enable the team to engage with grassroots community leaders and community health workers in piloting and refining the survey.

The survey could be a valuable tool used by community health workers to provide brief counseling to parents on how to best minimize neurotoxicant exposures to their infants. Supporting early brain development is crucial for lifelong success in adolescence and adulthood.  The team hopes the pilot data will support future applications for funding to better understand whether combined exposures to air pollutants, neurotoxic metals and infectious pathogens such as HIV, are especially harmful to early infant brain development.