Burden of neurological and neurocognitive impairment in pediatric sickle cell anemia in Uganda (BRAIN SAFE): a cross-sectional study

Green, Nancy S.; Munube, Deogratias; Bangirana, Paul; Buluma, Linda R.; Kebirungi, Bridget; Opoka, Robert; Mupere, Ezekiel; Kasirye, Philip; Kiguli, Sarah; Birabwa, Annet; Kawooya, Michael S.; Lubowa, Samson K.; Sekibira, Rogers; Kayongo, Edwards; Hume, Heather; Elkind, Mitchell; Peng, Weixin; Li, Gen; Rosano, Caterina; LaRussa, Philip; Minja, Frank J.; Boehme, Amelia; Idro, Richard

Children with sickle cell anemia (SCA) are highly susceptible to stroke and other manifestations of pediatric cerebral vasculopathy. Detailed evaluations in sub-Saharan Africa are limited.

We aimed to establish the frequency and types of pediatric brain injury in a cross-sectional study at a large SCA clinic in Kampala, Uganda in a randomly selected sample of 265 patients with HbSS ages 1–12 years. Brain injury was defined as one or more abnormality on standardized testing: neurocognitive impairment using an age-appropriate test battery, prior stroke by examination or transcranial Doppler (TCD) velocities associated with stroke risk in children with SCA (cerebral arterial time averaged mean maximum velocity ≥ 170 cm/second).

Mean age was 5.5 ± 2.9 years; 52.3% were male. Mean hemoglobin was 7.3 ± 1.01 g/dl; 76.4% had hemoglobin < 8.0 g/dl. Using established international standards, 14.7% were malnourished, and was more common in children ages 5–12. Overall, 57 (21.5%) subjects had one to three abnormal primary testing. Neurocognitive dysfunction was found in 27, while prior stroke was detected in 15 (5.7%). The most frequent abnormality was elevated TCD velocity 43 (18.1%), of which five (2.1%) were in the highest velocity range of abnormal. Only impaired neurocognitive dysfunction increased with age (OR 1.44, 95%CI 1.23–1.68), p < 0.001). In univariate models, malnutrition defined as wasting (weight-for-height ≤ −2SD), but not sex or hemoglobin, was modestly related to elevated TCD (OR 1.37, 95%CI 1.01–1.86, p = 0.04). In adjusted models, neurocognitive dysfunction was strongly related to prior stroke (OR 6.88, 95%CI 1.95–24.3, p = .003) and to abnormal TCD (OR 4.37, 95%CI 1.30, p = 0.02). In a subset of 81 subjects who were enriched for other abnormal results, magnetic resonance imaging and angiography (MRI/MRA) detected infarcts and/or arterial stenosis in 52%. Thirteen subjects (25%) with abnormal imaging had no other abnormalities detected.

The high frequency of neurocognitive impairment or other abnormal results describes a large burden of pediatric SCA brain disease in Uganda. Evaluation by any single modality would have underestimated the impact of SCA. Testing the impact of hydroxyurea or other available disease-modifying interventions for reducing or preventing SCA brain effects is warranted.


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August 10, 2022


Sickle cell anemia, Stroke, Neurocognitive impairment, Transcranial doppler, Sub-Saharan Africa