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Malaria with neurological involvement in Ugandan children: effect on cognitive ability, academic achievement and behaviour

Paul Bangirana12*, Seggane Musisi1, Michael J Boivin34, Anna Ehnvall56, Chandy C John7, Tracy L Bergemann8 and Peter Allebeck2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry, Makerere University College of Health Sciences, Kampala, Uganda

2 Department of Public Health Sciences, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

3 Departments of Psychiatry and Neurology/Ophthalmology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA

4 Neuropsychology Section, Department of Psychiatry, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

5 Institute of Clinical Neurosciences, Department of Psychiatry, Gothenburg University, Gothenburg, Sweden

6 Psychiatric Clinic of Varberg, Halland County Council, Sweden

7 Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA

8 Division of Biostatistics, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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Malaria Journal 2011, 10:334  doi:10.1186/1475-2875-10-334

Published: 3 November 2011



Malaria is a leading cause of ill health and neuro-disability in children in sub-Saharan Africa. Impaired cognition is a common outcome of malaria with neurological involvement. There is also a possibility that academic achievement may be affected by malaria with neurological involvement given the association between cognitive ability and academic achievement. This study investigated the effect of malaria with neurological involvement on cognitive ability, behaviour and academic achievement.


This prospective case-control study was carried out in Kampala City, Uganda between February 2008 and October 2010. Sixty-two children with a history of malaria with neurological involvement were followed up and given assessments for cognitive ability (working memory, reasoning, learning, visual spatial skills and attention), behaviour (internalizing and externalizing problems) and academic achievement (arithmetic, spelling and reading) three months after the illness. Sixty-one community controls recruited from the homes or neighbouring families of the cases were also given the same assessments. Tests scores of the two groups were compared using analysis of covariance with age, sex, level of education, nutritional status and quality of the home environment as covariates. This study was approved by the relevant ethical bodies and informed consent sought from the caregivers.


Children in the malaria group had more behavioural problems than the community controls for internalizing problems (estimated mean difference = -3.71, 95% confidence interval (CI), = -6.34 to -1.08, p = 0.007). There was marginal evidence of lower attention scores (0.40, CI = -0.05 to 0.86, p = 0.09). However, excluding one child from the analyses who was unable to perform the tests affected the attention scores to borderline significance (0.32, CI, = 0.01 to 0.62, p = 0.05). No significant differences were observed in other cognitive abilities or in academic achievement scores.


Malaria with neurological involvement affects behaviour, with a minimal effect on attention but no detectable effect on academic achievement at three months post discharge. This study provides evidence that development of cognitive deficits after malaria with neurological involvement could be gradual with less effect observed in the short term compared to the long term.

malaria; cognition; behaviour; academic achievement; neuropsychology