Healthy neurocognitive development is a prerequisite for well-being throughout life.
The best estimate is that 250 million children under age 5 years are not reaching their neurocognitive potential. These children go on to be less successful in school, less productive at work, and less fulfilled in their personal lives. The causes of this impairment are poorly understood.
The estimate of 250 million children suffering from neurocognitive impairment is just that: an estimate. It is challenging simply to measure the problem—IQ and other similar tests are notoriously unreliable even before you deal with the challenges of administering them across languages and cultures. The global health community is in the process of developing new tools to track neurocognitive development, but these efforts are still early.
Measuring the problem is hard. Solving it is even harder. Researchers have to keep track of a wide range of possible contributing factors. Genetics, environment, and early relationships all play a role, as do health and nutrition, but experts don’t yet understand how these interactions play out.
Getting to the bottom of these fundamental questions is one of the most urgent priorities in global health. The head of the African Development Bank has referred to the importance of what he calls “gray-matter infrastructure” to the future of the continent. Countries are much more likely to grow economically when all their citizens are reaching their potential and contributing fully to the project of development.
How We Are Addressing Impaired Neurocognitive Development
Current global burden estimates for children not on track to reach their potential are based proxy measures of stunting and SES, both of which have been associated with worse outcomes in later school achievement, attainment, and wages. While these associations are well established, data directly assessing neurodevelopment is limited, especially in LMICs, and suffers from lack of a standard assessment tool that is predictive of future capacity and well-defined outcomes that can define healthy development at a given age in diverse settings. This leaves gaps in our understanding of the true burden of children not reaching their full potential, how and when risk factors impact development and therefore how best to intervene both for prevention and treatment.
Our vision is to ensure all children reach their developmental potential in order to foster gains in child thriving and global human capital. We aim to do so by better characterizing the burden of children who are not reaching their full potential, identifying targetable risk factors contributing to this deficit and developing preventative public health interventions in our prioritized countries. Central to these objectives are assessment tools capable of identifying infants and young children not on track to reach their potential and sensitive enough to evaluate the impact of interventions.