Anxiety disorders
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Division of Molecular Biology & Human Genetics


​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.  Her research focusses on the relationships between telomere length and the development of HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND) in the context of depression and early childhood trauma. Her other research interests include electrochemistry, S-glutathionylation and animal models of drug addiction.

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Laboratory Manager

Natasha Kitchin is a Department of Psychiatry Research Assistant.  She is responsible for the management of the Neuropsychiatric Genetics laboratory and assists with various departmental research projects. Natasha is also a PhD student whose research investigates the role that the maternal and offspring gut microbiome, and the maternal vaginal microbiome, play in Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

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Research Assistant

gabier.jpgEreshia Gabier is a Laboratory Research Assistant assisting on the saNeuroGut study. Ereshia is also a PhD student whose research focuses on investigating the microbial diversity of patients with PTSD, Schizophrenia and Parkinson's Disease. Her project assesses differences in the gut and blood microbiome to better understand the role of the gut-blood barrier in these disorders.

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Postdoctoral fellows

Stefanie Malan-Müller obtained her PhD (Psychiatry) from Stellenbosch University in 2014. She investigates the gut microbiome profiles of PTSD patients to gain insight into how these microbes affect mental health and behaviour. Her other research interest is coding and non-coding RNAs and their interactions and functions in fear extinction in a PTSD animal model.

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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.    

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PhD students

Sylvanus Toikumo
is a PhD student whose research focuses on identifying shared epigenetic markers associated with the development of PTSD and metabolic syndrome.

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Jani Nöthling is a Research Assistant in the Department of Psychiatry. 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.  Part of her PhD work will be done with the Neuropsychiatric Genetics group.

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Allan Kalungi
is a Ph.D. student jointly registered at Stellenbosch University and Makerere University in Uganda.  His research will focus on investigating the association between acute stress and internalising mental disorders and factors that mediate this relationship, among HIV+ children and adolescents in Uganda.

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Alesha Sewnath has a MMedSci degree in Paediatrics and Child Health from the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine. With the knowledge gained from her background in clinical trials, having set up and managed trials with The International Maternal Paediatric Adolescent AIDS Clinical Trials (IMPAACT) Network, Alesha is currently working towards her PhD.





   M.Sc students


Chané Bain is an MSc student whose research investigates Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), focusing on mothers of the Robertson and Wellington area with hazardous drinking.

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Morne Du Plessis is an MSc student attempting to elucidate the genetic contributions underlying PTSD in the South African Coloured population through the identification of methylated quantitative trait loci. 

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

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Honours student

Aqeedah Roomaney
is a BSc Honours student. Her project examines whether differences in gene expression, particularly associated with inflammatory and oxidative stress processes, are associated with neurocognitive function, depression and childhood trauma in a cohort of HIV-negative and -positive women. 

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Past Students

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.







Keren de Buys
obtained her MSc (Human Genetics) in 2019. Her research investigated novel markers of cardiometabolic risk in the Black population of Cape Town, South Africa






Erin Manolas completed her BSc Honours in Human Genetics. Her research project examined the role of childhood trauma on cellular ageing (through telomere erosion) and the development of anxiety disorders.







Jessica Theron was a Department of Psychiatry laboratory Research Assistant.  She assisted with departmental research projects including managing databases, and performing DNA extractions.





Lyndon Zass completed his MSc (Human Genetics) in the Neuropsychiatric Genetics group.  His research investigated the epigenetic underpinnings of anxiety disorders by investigating DNA methylation in an anxiety sensitivity study.






Helène Herholdt completed her MSc (Human Genetics). Her project investigated gene expression signatures as shared aetiologies for PTSD and metabolic syndrome.






Laetitia Dicks completed her MSc (Human Genetics) on a gene expression project investigating susceptibility to the development of PTSD following trauma exposure.







Rolanda Londt was a Department of Psychiatry laboratory Research Assistant responsible for the management of the Neuropsychiatric Genetics laboratory.  She assisted with departmental research projects including managing databases, and performed DNA extractions and genetic analyses.





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."