After treating children from Rio de Janeiro's favelas for several years, physical therapist Mônica Cirne Albuquerque has a theory: that stress is a factor the neurological illnesses she sees on a daily basis.

Cirne worked with patients in the Complexo de Alemao, one of Rio’s most violent favelas, for several years before opening her own clinic nearby. Her clinic, the Instituto Movimento + Vida, provides free treatment for residents of the favela and relies on donations and volunteer staff.


Cirne is particularly concerned about young patients suffering from microcephaly, cerebral palsy, autism, brain damage, and even strokes. While people over 65 are most at risk for strokes, pediatric and pre-natal strokes are not uncommon. Cirne, who has seen them in teenagers and infants, said that doctors sometimes fail to diagnose them.

The Complexo de Alemao has few health facilities and ambulances are unable to reach the twisting streets and alleys in the heart of the favelas, where there is regular violence between drug gangs and heavily armed police. Cirne’s patients are sometimes forced to cancel appointments because of gunfire in their neighborhood and talk at length about the stress on them and their children.

“They think they are stressed just because of the gunfire,” Cirne said. “But there are others causes too, like drug use, chaotic lifestyles and domestic violence. I believe the neurological problems I see are linked to daily life in the favela.”

Cirne hopes to conduct a formal study on potential links between stress in the favela and neurological problems. She has access to everything she needs: medical histories and a steady flow of patients who trust her. But she lacks the time and resources to collect the data and publish her research.

“I need a physician or a medical student to come to the clinic as a researcher,” she said. “I need someone to help me with the study. It’s a shame, because doing a proper study would help many more people than I can treat myself.”