Anxiety disorders
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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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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 molecular aetiology of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), focusing on changes in the maternal gut and vaginal microbiome that may influence the risk of the offspring developing neurodevelopmental symptoms characteristic of FASD.

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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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Jacqueline Womersley obtained her PhD in Physiology from the University of Cape Town in 2014.  Her research project focusses on the relationships between telomere length and the development of HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders 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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Patricia Swart obtained her PhD (Neuroscience) from the University of Cape Town in 2018. She currently examines RNA-seq and GWAS data to identify expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) associated with PTSD. Her other research interests include animal behaviour, optogenetics and electrophysiology.              

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PhD students


Khethelo Xulu
is a Ph.D. student whose research focusses on the molecular aetiology of posttraumatic stress disorder and aggressive behaviour.  His study investigates DNA methylation amongst young former offenders from Cape Town townships and seeks to discover diagnostic and treatment outcomes biomarkers.

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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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Jani Nöthling is a Research Assistant in the Department of Psychiatry. She obtained her MA in research psychology from Stellenbosch University. 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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Alesha Sewnath has a background in clinical trials, having set up and managed various phase trials with The International Maternal Paediatric Adolescent AIDS Clinical Trials (IMPAACT) Network as well as managing other clinical studies within the paediatric HIV field. She has a MMedSci degree in Paediatrics and Child Health from the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine and is currently working towards her PhD at Stellenbosch University.

 

 

 

 

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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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M.Sc students

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Keren de Buys is a MSc student investigating relevant novel markers of and the association of leukocyte telomere length to cardio-metabolic risk in the Black population of Cape Town. Her project forms part of the SAMRC funded Cardiovascular Risk in Black South Africans (CRIBSA), in collaboration with Dr Nasheeta Peer and Dr Andre Kengne.


 


 

 

 

Chané Bain is a MSc student currently completing her studies in the field of Human Genetics. She is investigating Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, focusing on mothers of the Robertson and Wellington area with hazardous drinking.

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 BSc Honours students

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Morne Du Plessis obtained his undergraduate degree, BSc Human Life Sciences (Genetics, Physiology), at Stellenbosch University in 2017. He is currently completing his Honours in the Human Genetics, working with the Neuropsychiatric Genetics group to investigate telomere-related gene expression in childhood trauma, major depression and HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders.

 

 

 

  

Past members

 

Helène Herholdt completed her MSc. Her project investigated gene expression signatures as shared aetiologies for PTSD and metabolic syndrome. The study forms part of the Flagship Shared Roots study focusing on Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Cardiovascular Disease.

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Laetitia Dicks completed her MSc on a gene expression project investigating susceptibility to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder following trauma exposure. The study forms part of the Flagship Shared Roots study focusing on Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Cardiovascular Disease.

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Rolanda Londt was a Department of Psychiatry laboratory research assistant responsible for the management of the psychiatric genetics laboratory.  She assisted with departmental research projects including managing databases, and performed DNA extractions and genetic analyses. Rolanda obtained her M. Phil. in Biomedical Forensic Science from the University of Cape Town in 2014.

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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.

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Jessica Theron was a Department of Psychiatry laboratory Research Assistant.  She assisted with departmental research projects including managing databases, and performing DNA extractions. Jessica obtained her BSc Honours in Molecular Biology and Human Genetics from Stellenbosch University in 2016.


  


 


 

 

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

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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."