​​​​​Department of Psychiatry

​Research - Research Units 

Psychosis Research Programme


People with mental illness, in particular psychotic disorders, have complex needs that often limit their full potential for productive social, educational, and occupational lives. The first episode of psychosis and the preceding period of clinical and functional decline offers unique opportunities for understanding the mechanisms of psychosis and providing early treatment intervention aimed at optimizing outcome. The key theme of our research focus is to identify psychosis-specific risk and resilience factors in particular environments, promote evidence-based pharmacological and psychosocial intervention research including clinical trials, and contribute significantly to the teaching and training of professionals and researchers from developing countries.


Our history

The program was started in the mid-90s with a focus on pharmacological research in schizophrenia. In 2008 we embarked on a prospective study exploring the clinical, biological, and functional aspects of treatment outcome in first-episode schizophrenia. We focused on the pharmacology, efficacy, and tolerability of long-acting injectable antipsychotic medications in the treatment of first-episode schizophrenia spectrum disorders. We examined the course and outcomes using clinical and imaging data. We also examined the association between environmental factors and childhood trauma on disease onset and progression. Our program provides opportunities for PhD and Master level training for scientists, clinicians, and psychologists with a particular focus on women, black psychiatrists, and people with disabilities.​

Our mission

To be a premier research unit that develops cutting-edge scientific tools to improve our understanding of psychotic disorders through engagement with diverse collaborators, stakeholders, and the community which we serve.


Our vision​

​To be a center of research excellence that responds to important knowledge gaps in the field of psychosis research and needs relevant to our setting through innovative scholarship and strategic collaborations.​

Our values

  • Integrity
  • Responsibility
  • Diversity
  • Innovation
  • Excellence

Our people

Prof Robin Emsley 

​​MBChB, DCH, FCPsych, MMed (Psych), DMed, DSc

Unit Director

Sarah Turoff Endowed Chair in Schizophrenia

Laila Asmal.png
Prof Laila Asmal 
MBChB, FCPsych, MMed (Psych)​, MSc Clinical Epidemiology, PhD

Senior lecturer/Psychiatrist/Researcher

Interest area: psychiatric epidemiology and neuropsychiatry

Dr Stefan du Plessis


Interest area: psychiatric neuroimaging

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Dr Hilmar Klaus Lückhof
MBChB, BScHons Pathology, MSc Pathology, PhD


Interest area: Metabolic syndrome and clinical outcomes and sex- and gender-based research


Dr Lebogang Phahladira


Interest area: clinical course and outcome


Retha Smit
​MA Psychology

​Clinical trials and research coordination


Freda Scheffler.jpgFreda Scheffler 
MA Psychology

PhD candidate 

Interest: neurobiology and substance use and psychiatric neuroimaging

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​Chanelle Hendrikse
MA Research Psychology

PhD candidate

Interest: psychiatric neuroimaging


Our current research focus

Our current projects are focused on different aspects of schizophrenia and related psychoses, informed by our exploration of the illness, its clinical course, and ultimate outcome. The group also has a keen interest in the interaction between structural brain measures and environmental factors that shape the clinical course and evolution of first-episode schizophrenia. In addition, we are interested in the use of virtual reality technologies to provide greater insight into these inter-relationships, particularly considering neuroimaging for stress-sensitive brain regions in relation to neurodevelopment. We have explored sex and gender in relation to clinical and treatment outcomes and neurodevelopmental risk factors relevant to the onset and progression of first-episode schizophrenia.​

Our work


Grants received:

Congress presentations:

Awards: The 2021 WFSBP Lifetime Achievement Award in Biological Psychiatry​ - Prof Robin Emsley

International collaborations

  • University of Ibadan, Nigeria
  • Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London
  • University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • Utrecht University, The Netherlands​

Funding sources

  • New Partnership for Africa's Development
  • Stanley Medical Research Institute
  • Janssen-Cilag
  • Lundbeck International
  • Medical Research Council of South Africa
  • Department of Science and Technology, South Africa



Available research projects: see here.​

Contact us​

Prof Robin Emsley (rae@sun.ac.za)