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SU lecturer is advancing mental health research in Africa
Author: Corporate Communication/Korporatiewe Kommunikasie [Rozanne Engel]
Published: 05/10/2020

With the world still in the midst of a global Covid-19 pandemic, many countries including South Africa, have seen a surge in the number of mental health cases.

According to Dr Nathaniel McGregor, not enough research has been done in Africa to help with the increasing burden of mental health disorders, which has left many of the marginalised populations on the continent under-represented.

This Stellenbosch University (SU) researcher and lecturer has made it his mission to help advance mental health research in Africa by specifically looking at the mental health genetics of people on the continent.

“Mental health disorders like schizophrenia and anxiety disorders present with substantial burden, with much of this burden found in lower-to-middle-income countries like South Africa. Additionally, our populations present with unique, rich genetic diversity, meaning that not all global research outputs are always applicable to our populations, further compounding burden. My research aims to uncover the underlying molecular mechanisms contributing towards mental health disorders and the treatment thereof in under-represented African populations."

McGregor, who grew up in Cape Town, initially wanted to pursue medicine but after exploring the Bachelor of Science (BSc) route, he found his interest lied in understanding the underlying causes for disease more than treating the symptoms. 

After completing his BSc Honours and MSc degrees at SU's Department of Genetics, he completed his doctorate in Psychiatry at the Tygerberg medical campus where he specialised in Neuropsychiatric Genetics.

In 2014, McGregor was awarded the NRF Scarce Skills Post-Doctoral Fellowship and decided to split his research time between SU and the University of Cape Town's (UCT) MRC Unit on Anxiety and Stress Disorders (now the SU/UCT MRC Unit on Risk and Resilience in Mental Disorders) and the Pharmacogenetics Research Group lead by Prof Louise Warnich, Dean of the Faculty of Science at SU.

In addition to this, McGregor also forms part of the MRC SHARED-ROOTS Flagship Project's research team, led by Prof Soraya Seedat, investigating the mechanisms underlying metabolic syndrome and mental illness.

“Mental health disorders are complex. Neuropsychiatric genetics is the last 'black box' of genetics research, where large facets of molecular mechanisms contributing towards to disease manifestation remain largely unknown. Additionally, with South Africa presenting with the second highest prevalence of anxiety disorders in the world, and a completely inadequate health-care system to support this (the government allocates R100 per person per year for mental health), the absolute necessity to make meaningful progress in this area motivates me every day," says McGregor.

In 2016, McGregor was appointed as lecturer in the Department of Genetics under the division Human Genetics. He teaches various modules in introductory genetics, pharmacogenomics as well as the Human and Animal genetics component of the Genetics BSc Honours degree.

He is a multiple NRF Scarce-Skills Scholarship awardee and an Erasmus Mundus scholarship recipient enabling collaboration with Stockholm's Centre for Molecular Medicine at the Karolinska Institute.

He is also a member of the South African Society of Human Genetics, the American Society of Human Genetics and the South African Neuroscience Society. He is also recently completed a three-year programme at Harvard focusing on African centred training for addressing the burden of mental disorders globally (Global Initiative for Neuropsychiatric Genetics Education in Research (GINGER)).

According to McGregor, he feels privileged to have been able to collaborate with some incredible institutions and to learn from some of the top researchers in the mental health field. He hopes to have a well-established research group in the future, which will help shape the field of mental health research by advocating for Systems Genetics approaches to neuropsychiatric disorders through innovative research and the training of local and international students.

“The field of neuropsychiatric genetics is relatively new and small. We need many more fresh, new minds who will think innovatively about the application of research in the mental health arena."