Anxiety disorders
Welcome to Stellenbosch University

Division of Molecular Biology & Human Genetics

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​Anxiety disorders

Neuropsychiatric Genetics Group



Group leader/head

 Sîan Hemmings is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry. She heads the Neuropsychiatric Genetics research group. She obtained her MSc and PhD from Stellenbosch University, and has been involved in psychiatric research for the past 15 years. Her research interests include investigating the molecular aetiology of PTSD and stress-related disorders, by conducting genetic, epigenetic, transciptomic and microbiomic studies. She also works on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).

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Senior Scientist 

Jacqueline Womersley obtained her PhD in Physiology from the University of Cape Town in 2014.  Jacqueline is currently investigating the role of DNA methylation in a range of projects covering FASD, childhood trauma, aggression, PTSD and anxiety sensitivity.

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Laboratory Managers

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Keren de Buys 
is the Laboratory Manager for the Neuropsychiatric Genetics research group. She is responsible for the day to day management of the Neuropsychiatric Genetics laboratory.

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Natasha Kitchin is the Quality Assurance Manager for the Neuropsychiatric Genetics research group. Natasha is also a PhD student whose research investigates the role that the maternal and infant gut microbiome, and the maternal vaginal microbiome, play in Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).

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Research Assistant​

Kayleigh Filton is an intern for the Neuropsychiatric Genetics research group, expanding her skill set of laboratory techniques and experience in the research sector.

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Postdoctoral Research Fellows

Swart.jpg Patricia Swart obtained her PhD (Neuroscience) from the University of Cape Town in 2018. She is currently working on a genome-wide association study and the polygenic risk of PTSD in a South African Mixed-Ancestry population. In addition, she is aiming to identify expression quantitative loci (eQTLs) associated with PTSD in the above cohort. She is also managing the saNeuroGut project which is a large population-based study into the role of the gut microbiome and genetic mechanisms in psychiatric disorders in South African participants.    



 Jean-Paul Fouche obtained his PhD (Neuroscience) from the University of Cape Town in 2018. He is currently working on a project investigating the brain imaging correlates of PTSD and metabolic syndrome in a South African population. In addition, he is also interested in determining the brain and epigenetic aging of various mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety.  

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 Jani Nöthling obtained her PhD (Psychiatry) in 2021. Her research area of interest is trauma exposure and its clinical and epigenetic consequences in adolescents and adults following exposure to violence, abuse and neglect.

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PhD students

duplessis.jpg  Morne Du Plessis is an PhD student using polygenic risk score- and machine learning-based modelling approaches to identify the optimal method through which to predict PTSD status in a South African population.

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duplessis.jpg  Carlien Rust is an PhD student investigating the blood and gut microbiome in PTSD, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. Carlien aims to develop a pipeline to investigate the human blood microbiome using RNA-seq data and additionally correlate the blood microbiome composition with that of the gut microbiome as well as with inflammatory cytokine data.

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MSc​ students

roomaney.jpgAqeedah Roomaney is a MSc student. Her project examines the effect of dopamine-related genetic variants on reward-related neuronal activity in healthy participants in order to better understand the polygenic basis underlying reward processing abnormalities.

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Leah.pngLeah Chifamba is an MSc student whose research examines the influence of childhood trauma and epigenetic variation in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) on anxiety sensitivity. 

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Lauren.pngLauren Martin is an MSc student whose research aims to optimise the sequencing and assembly of 16S rRNA short-read libraries on the Illumina iSeq100 to achieve greater taxonomic resolution when applying this sequencing technique to the identification of bacterial species in microbiome-related projects.

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Daniélle Jansen van Rensburg is an MSc student whose research investigates the association between microRNAs in blood and anxiety proneness in a cohort of South African adolescents with exposure to childhood trauma.

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Thomas Rust is an MSc student whose research examines the influence of childhood trauma and epigenetic variation in the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene on anxiety proneness and structural and functional neuroimaging measures. 

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Catherine Lohrentz is a MSc student whose research investigates virtual reality as a tool for physiological bio-marker exploration in post-traumatic stress disorder in a South African population, with a focus on FKBP5 methylation.

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Kabelo Maloka is a MSc student investigating the genetic and epigenetic regulation of ADCYAP1 and BRSK2 in rape exposed women with and without PTSD. This study may provide support for ADCYAP1, ADCYAP1R1 and BRSK2 as potential therapeutic targets and biomarkers of PTSD pathogenesis.

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Michaela O’Hare  is an MSc student investigating the gut microbial composition of individuals with self-reported symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD compared to matched healthy controls.

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Lianna Kapp  is an MSc student investigating the relationship between PACAP/estrogen serum levels and methylation in relation to PTSD status and symptom scores over time.

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Past Students

Philippa Taitz was a BSc Honours student whose research investigates the influence of maternal DNA methylation markers on the development of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). 






Rachel Ince was a BSc Honours student who is researching the genetic contributions to anxiety sensitivity in the context of childhood trauma. 






Allegra Moodley was an MSc student investigating pro-inflammatory cytokines as markers of inflammation in PTSD, Parkinson’s disease and Schizophrenia patients.





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Sylvanus Toikumo
 obtained his PhD (Psychiatry) in 2020. His research focused on identifying shared epigenetic markers associated with the development of PTSD and metabolic syndrome.


 

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Allan Kalungi
 was a Ph.D. student jointly registered at Stellenbosch University and Makerere University in Uganda. He obtained his PhD (Psychiatry) in 2020. His research focused on investigating the association between acute stress and internalising mental disorders and factors that mediate this relationship, among HIV+ children and adolescents in Uganda.
 



Chané Bain
 obtained her MSc (Human Genetics) in 2020. Her research investigated Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), focusing on mothers of the Robertson and Wellington area with hazardous drinking.

 



 
Stefanie Malan-Müller obtained her PhD (Psychiatry) from Stellenbosch University in 2014. Her research investigated the gut microbiome profiles of PTSD patients to gain insight into how these microbes affect mental health and behaviour. 






Khethelo Xulu obtained his PhD (Psychiatry) in 2018.  His research focused on the molecular aetiology of PTSD and aggressive behaviour, investigating DNA methylation amongst young former offenders from Cape Town townships.

 

 

 

 

 

On Monday, 10 October 2016 The Neuropsychiatric Genetics group celebrated World Mental Health Day 2016 by spreading awareness about mental health. This year’s theme was "Take 10 Together", the #WMHD campaign called on everyone to reach out to someone – a friend, a family member, a colleague – and have a meaningful 10-minute conversation with them to start talking about their mental health and wellbeing.

"Never give up on someone with a mental illness. When "I" is replaced by "We", illness becomes wellness."

 

 

 

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