5 December 2022

2022 CANTAB Research Grant: Carotenoid uptake and cognitive and visual outcomes in Ghanaian schoolchildren

We caught up with the 2022 CANTAB™ Research Grant Primary Award Winner, Nana Aba Senuwah Ashon, who tells us how the grant will help to understand the role of carotenoid uptake on vision and cognition in Ghanaian schoolchildren.

I would like to thank Cambridge Cognition for funding my project with the 2022 CANTABTM Research Grant Primary Award. It is a great honour for my colleagues and I to receive this grant and we are thrilled to be provided with the opportunity to use the CANTABTM software in our research. 

I am Nana Aba Senuwah Ashon, a Doctor of Optometry candidate at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, Ghana. My research focuses on investigating the association between dietary carotenoid intake, cognition, and visual function among school children in Ghana under the supervision of Dr. Kwadwo Owusu Akuffo (Senior Lecturer and Head of Optometry Department). As an aspiring optometrist and vision scientist, my passion for research has influenced my career path tailored explicitly toward understanding the interaction between the role of the human diet in vision and cognition. I envision using findings from my research to propose recommendations that could help alleviate eye and brain disorders in Ghanaian schoolchildren. To this end, the investigative grant from Cambridge Cognition has opened new windows toward advancing my project and career, and I appreciate the assistance dearly. 

What is the project about, and why is this important?

Early neurodevelopment of the visual system and cognitive facilities plays a critical role in children, extending throughout adulthood. In children, vision and cognitive deficits interfere with functioning across all settings, including personal growth, sensorimotor coordination, academic achievements, and overall quality of life. Several evidence-based studies have identified nutritional deficiencies as a significant risk factor in non-communicable childhood diseases, and contrastingly adequate dietary intake is considered an important modifiable factor in enhancing visual and cognitive performance. Particularly, dietary carotenoids (lutein and zeaxanthin) selectively deposit in the macular (center for bright vision) and brain regions, enhancing neural processing and, importantly, exert a protective effect against deleterious free radical-mediated oxidative stress.

Given the premise of carotenoids in child health and the sparse evidence, we propose a novel study to ascertain carotenoid consumption in school children and its prediction of cognition and visual outcomes in Ghana. Understanding the carotenoid status and its influence on cognition and vision scores could help propose a dietary recommendation model to augment micronutrient intake among the populace and help to reduce the burden of cognitive and vision impairment.

What are you hoping to discover?

This study will employ a multicenter cross-sectional design which will recruit at least 150 schoolchildren aged seven to 13 years. The participants’ dietary carotenoid intake will be retrospectively self-reported using a food frequency questionnaire. Cognitive function will be assessed with the CANTABTM assessment tests. Visual function will be assessed with the Early Treatment Diabetic Retinopathy Study (ETDRS) LogMAR Visual Acuity chart and Pelli Robson Contrast Sensitivity chart. Macular pigment optical density will be measured using a customized heterochromatic flicker photometry. 

Considering carotenoids have been strongly linked with cognition in adults and lutein is more abundant in infants’ brains than in older people, we hypothesize that high dietary carotenoid intake will predict better cognitive outcomes in schoolchildren than those with lower dietary carotenoid consumption. We intend to learn more about how the Ghanaian diet influences cognitive and visual outcomes among a sample of Ghanaian schoolchildren. Understanding the influence of these nutritional factors will enable us to propose a dietary recommendation scheme that will be adapted specifically to the Ghanaian diet.

This will make it easier to be adhered to as most existing dietary recommendation models may not be suited to foods common to the Ghanaian diet. Furthermore, data obtained from this study will contribute to the growing literature on the effects of lutein and zeaxanthin consumption on macular pigment optical density, visual and cognitive function particularly in the African pediatric population.

Carotenoids, specifically, lutein and zeaxanthin will be investigated as these pigments accumulate in the macular and have been proven to be correlated with serum, skin and brain carotenoids. 

What CANTAB™ tests will we use?

The proposed study will utilize the extensive cognitive battery provided by Cambridge Cognition. Specifically, attention and psychomotor speed will be assessed with the Motor Screening Task (MOT) and Reaction Time (RTI) tests. Paired Associates Learning (PAL) and Delayed Matching to Sample (DMS) tests will be utilized to investigate memory while executive function will be explored with Spatial Working Memory (SWM) and Stockings of Cambridge (SOC) tests. The autonomous data capturing capabilities, high sensitivity to tolerable environmental conditions, and language independence in assessments makes these assessments invaluable for the purpose of the study. The difficulty in assessing student subjects and the varying environmental conditions in field measurements makes the CANTABTM cognitive toolkit a more robust battery.

How important was funding from Cambridge Cognition for your work?

As a student researcher, receiving the CANTABTM Research Grant was vital to actualizing my proposed framework. Given the project’s uniqueness but limited financial resources, the award enabled me to overcome the challenges of resources and logistics. In particular, the grant is critical for catering for transportation to multiple study sites, securing research toolkits, and remuneration of research assistants.

In addition, the extensive cognition assessment battery from CANTABTM has increased my capacity to investigate varying cognitive parameters in this target population. To this end, receiving this prestigious and highly competitive research grant has given me the exposure and the credentials to attract future grants.

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Nana Aba Senuwah Ashon

Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST)

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