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About SickKids

October 23, 2013

SickKids researchers receive funds to improve child brain development

Bold ideas from SickKids innovators receive global grants from the Saving Brains Program, Grand Challenges Canada

Researchers from The Hospital for Sick Children’s Centre for Global Child Health are among recipients of funding for projects aimed at improving the early brain development of children in low-resource countries.

Grand Challenges Canada, funded by the Government of Canada, announced today that it has extended a total of $10.1 million to 14 bold, creative projects, including two projects at the SickKids Centre for Global Child Health.

One project is known as “Toolkit for Minimizing the Impact of Procedural Pain in Infants.”

Working in Ghana, the project team will introduce ways of alleviating pain for infants born prematurely and treated in special neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) – specifically, babies who experience moderate to severe pain several times daily due to diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, such as blood sample collections and medicine injections.  

Project leader Dr. Bonnie Stevens says there is evidence that problems with brain growth and development found later among children born preterm can be linked to the number of painful procedures experienced in the NICU.

Less is known about neonatal pain management in low- and middle-resource countries, where the incidence of neonatal sickness and death is highest.  

This project, introduced to Ghanaian caregivers and parents, is adapted from successful knowledge translation practices in Canada. Videos and other educational materials will detail simple, universally affordable, effective ways to mitigate procedural pain for an infant.

Combined, these interventions have a demonstrated cumulative pain-relieving effect.

"Inadequate resources are cited as the major impediment to pain management in infants, as well as a lack of knowledge, severe staff shortages and formal training about pain. The proposed toolkit intervention will address these issues," says Stevens.  
The project draws on existing partnerships between the University of Ghana School of Nursing, Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra and SickKids. Plans call for the toolkit's integration into the curriculum at the School of Nursing in Accra (which currently includes limited pain content) and scaling it up to reach additional countries.

The second project is called “An Integrated Toolkit to Save Newborns' Brains in Kenya.”

The first month of life is a critical period in brain growth and development which can be affected by hypothermia, infection and other events.

Reducing the number of impediments to young brain growth is the aim of this toolkit, which was initially created for use by mothers in Kenya.

"We believe that improved neurodevelopment outcomes at age 1 will translate into sustainable longer-term gains in academic performance, employment, productivity and ultimately more human capital," says project leader Dr. Shaun Morris from the Division of Infectious Diseases.

Contents of the toolkit (which costs less than $5 CDN) include:

  • A clean delivery kit to minimize infection at time of delivery.
  •  A sterilizing gel that, applied to the umbilical stump, reduces certain severe infections by up to 75 per cent and mortality from all causes by 25 to 40 per cent.
  •  An emollient to promote skin integrity, helping to reduce infection and prevent hypothermia. This product has been shown to reduce mortality in hospitalized preterm infants.
  •  A hand-held scale to spot early warnings signaled by an infant's weight, and a ThermoSpot to identify hypothermia and fever.
  •  A mylar infant sleeve and reusable heating device to treat hypothermia.
  • Information on infant stimulation, involving play and communication strategies proven beneficial to neurodevelopment in low-birth weight newborns.

Aga Khan University, Kenya, is a project collaborator.

Read more about the Grand Challenges Saving Brains Program.