Blog Global Health Center

Understanding the relationship between sleep, mental health and pain in anemic children

Written by Haytham J. El-Zaim, BSA in neuroscience, honors candidate, minor in applied economics at The University of Texas at Austin; and participant in the 2023 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

Optimizing cognitive performance is important for all children, especially given the recent pandemic which interrupted learning at schools and institutions of higher education across the country. While conducting research in St. Louis, I’ve learned that cognition is a multifaceted, higher-level function that requires a careful balance between various systems in the body. Without adequate oxygenation and blood flow, our brains simply lack the metabolic capacity to execute the processing needed for learning and memory.

Through my participation in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Cardiovascular Disease & Hematology (RADIANCE) track, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside Assistant Professor, Melanie Fields, MD, MSCI, and the Fields Lab to support an array of projects related to cognition in anemic children. Recent studies have suggested a complex relationship between pain in anemic patients and their cognitive abilities. Working with second-year medical student, Paula Germino-Watnick, my summer project is focused on understanding the relationship between sleep quality, pain, mental health, and anemia in pediatric patients.

Assistant Professor Fields’ team and I are employing a series of questionnaires and surveys in our study to gain a deeper understanding of the interplay between sleep patterns in anemic patients and their cognitive performance. We also hope to define the relationship between sleep, mental health, and pain in anemic children through our research. The study is looking at patients with sickle cell disease, those with some other form of anemia, and non-anemic controls with the hopes of identifying a pattern in anemic children. Through my work in the Fields Lab, I am gaining insight into the experimental design process, the implementation of clinical research, and study participant recruitment. While working with Asst. Professor Fields this summer, I have also administered cognitive testing and participated in MRI study visits.

An aerial view of St. Louis Children’s Hospital | Photo: SLCH

I am incredibly grateful to Fields and her team for allowing me to work with them in the Division of Hematology & Oncology at Washington University and St. Louis Children’s Hospital this summer. Conducting clinical research in Saint Louis has inspired me to ask questions and remain curious in my future endeavors. As an aspiring physician and health care leader, I hope to apply the skills and knowledge that I have acquired in the Summer Research Program to advance meaningful change for patients across the country.