12 September 2014. Chemical brain drain is and will be a much greater problem in Africa than on other continents. “It’s critical to invest now in African children’s wellbeing”, said Peter Spencer, pioneer neurotoxicologist and professor at a conference in Luxembourg earlier this week. According to Dr. Spencer, the focus on Africa is necessary due to two factors.
One is that African women have high fertility rates. According to a new report from UNICEF, almost half of Africans today are below 18 years. By 2020, Africa will be home to 40% of all the world’s children, while that proportion was only 10% in 1950. By 2050, the number will have increased to almost 1 billion children. Approximately half of the world’s children will be African by the end of the century.
At the same time, many parts of Africa are plagued by multiple problems, such as malnutrition, infectious disease, food insecurity, and exposure to naturally occurring as well as man-made toxic chemicals. The latter include toxic metals, pesticides, and other toxicants that may affect brain development and nervous system functions.
Further, other neurotoxic compounds occur in common foods. Cassava is an important staple for more than 800 million people, the majority in sub-Saharan Africa. Especially the bitter cultivars contain cyanogenic glycosides that release hydrogen cyanide unless the tubers are processed before consumption. Long-term exposure to these substances causes chronic toxicity to the nervous system, variously named cassavism, konzo or mantakassa. Not only that, but the grass pea, commonly consumed in Ethiopia and other countries, also contains a toxic compound that can cause irreversible damage to the brain. Both grass pea and cassava are environmentally tolerant plants that serve as dietary staples for impoverished people. Further, a newly recognized disease of the nervous system – the Nodding Syndrome – is currently being investigated in regard to the causal agents, including food contaminants.
For these reasons, neurotoxicity research is badly needed in Africa, and preventive efforts will have much greater impact there than elsewhere, Peter Spencer concludes.