​​​​​​​​​​Department of Psychiatry

Research - Available projects

 

How do I apply for these projects?

Please refer to our Research Units webpage for more information regarding our areas of interest and expertise. We kindly request that you approach potential supervisors for additional information about the projects listed here, or if you have ideas for other research projects. Informal queries are also welcome.

 

1. Schizophrenia/psychosis

Read more about the Schizophrenia Research Unit here.

VR and substance use in schizophrenia

Level: Masters
Supervisors: F Scheffler (fredas@sun.ac.za), Prof L Weich (lizwe@sun.ac.za), Dr S du Plessis (stefandup@sun.ac.za)

 

Investigating the evolution of modularity in neural networks

Level: Masters
Supervisors: Prof D van den Heever (dawie@sun.ac.za), Dr S du Plessis (stefandup@sun.ac.za)


Investigating the role of functional dopamine- and seratonin-related genetic variants in reward and affective processing, respectively

Level: Masters
Supervisors: Dr S du Plessis (stefandup@sun.ac.za) Prof S Hemmings (smjh@sun.ac.za), Dr P Swart (patswart@sun.ac.za), Dr J Womersley (jsw1@sun.ac.za)


Utilizing virtual reality as a therapeutic tool in Psychiatry

Level: Masters
Supervisors: Prof D van den Heever (dawie@sun.ac.za), Dr D Rosenstein


The impact of cannabis and methamphetamine use on clinical and functional aspects of outcome in first episode schizophrenia patients: a longitudinal study

Level: PhD
Supervisors: Prof RA Emsley (rae@sun.ac.za), Dr S du Plessis (stefandup@sun.ac.za)


Measuring physiological responses associated with social stress in a virtual environment and its relationship with childhood trauma in early schizophrenia: a pilot study

Level:  Masters/MMed
Supervisor: Dr S du Plessis (stefandup@sun.ac.za)

 

Factors associated with drop-out two years post-initiation of treatment in first episode schizophrenia

Level:  Masters/MMed
Supervisor: Prof L Asmal (laila@sun.ac.za)


Metabolomic syndrome risk factor associations with clinical, functional and cognitive outcomes and underlying cerebral white matter connectivity during the first year of treatment in schizophrenia spectrum disorders

Level:  PhD
Supervisor: Prof RA Emsley (rae@sun.ac.za), Dr S du Plessis (stefandup@sun.ac.za)


The clinical course and outcomes of first episode psychosis: a study of the acute, medium and long-term outcomes in a cohort rigorously treated in the early phase of illness

Level:  PhD
Supervisor: Prof RA Emsley (rae@sun.ac.za)


Associations between childhood maltreatmement and brain structure, function and network architecture in apparently healthy adults

Level:  PhD
Supervisor: Dr S du Plessis (stefandup@sun.ac.za), Prof RA Emsley (rae@sun.ac.za), Prof S Seedat (sseedat@sun.ac.za)


The assosciation between premorbid adjustment and childhood trauma in first-episode schizophrenia spectrum disorders

Level:  Masters/MMed
Supervisor: Prof L Asmal (laila@sun.ac.za)


First episode schizophrenia and substance induced psychosis treated with long acting injectable antisychotics in a community mental health clinic setting: a mixed model feasibility study

Level:  Masters/MMed
Supervisor: Prof L Asmal (laila@sun.ac.za)


​2. Anxiety and stress-related disorders (including obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder)


Cannabinoids for treatment of females with chronic pelvic pain (CPP)​: a pilot randomized control study

Level: Postdoc

Supervisors: Prof S Seedat (sseedat@sun.ac.za), Dr E Vuong (eileenthomas@sun.ac.za)

Research Unit: SARChI Chair in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Read more about this research unit here.

Description: This study seeks to investigate the role of cannabinoids as treatment modality for females with chronic pelvic pain disorder who commonly suffer from  depression and anxiety and have histories of trauma exposure.   We will use a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover design to investigate whether cannabinoids have efficacy for decreasing pain in CPP as well as investigate whether cannabinoids improves mental health outcomes. Each period will be 14 days in duration, followed by a 14-day washout period. Participants will be recruited from the outpatient Gynaecology and Women's Health Clinics at Tygerberg Hospital. We aim to recruit approximately 50 participants.​



Imaging-Epigenetocs study of anxiety sensitivity in adolescents

Level: Masters

Supervisors: Prof S Seedat (sseedat@sun.ac.za), Prof S Hemmings (smjh@sun.ac.za), Dr J Womersley (jsw1@sun.ac.za)

Research Unit: SARChI Chair in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Read more about this research unit here.

Description: Anxiety sensitivity is a dispositional characteristic that has been established as a cognitive risk factor for the development of anxiety (e.g., panic and posttraumatic stress disorder) and mood disorders. Anxiety sensitivity  is subject to genetic and experiential influences.  Investigating adolescents with anxiety proneness ± early developmental trauma provides a unique opportunity to examine the interaction of epigenetics with structural brain deficits that may be important for mediating increased levels of anxiety and may help in our understanding of the processes responsible for the development of anxiety disorders. This secondary data neuroimaging (epi)genetics study of anxiety sensitivity will combine structural MRI and DNA methylation data in a sample of adolescent participants. It is anticipated that the paper will focus on methylation of the NPSR1 gene.​



PTSD and Metabolic Syndrome: The Shared Roots Study - Nutritional and Lifestyle Factors in PTSD

Level: PhD

Supervisors: Prof S Seedat (sseedat@sun.ac.za), Dr Leigh van den Heuvel (llvdh@sun.ac.za)

Research Unit: The Shared Roots of Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Cardiovascular Disease Project. Read more about this research unit here.​

Description: PTSD is associated with reduced healthy eating and physical activity, and increased obesity. The well-established association between PTSD and metabolic syndrome (MetS) and cardiovascular disease may be partly due to poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, high prevalence of obesity, and co-occurring smoking in this population. This project will harness secondary data from the project Shared Roots. Research questions could include: What is the relationship between dietary intake (macronutrients), high sensitivity-C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) and perceived stress (in the healthy control cohort)?

What is the association of dietary intake with metabolic parameters, depression and physical activity (in the healthy control cohort)? What is the link between PTSD, physical activity, and eating behaviours (in the PTSD cohort)? Does poor diet mediate the link between early adversity, PTSD severity and MetS severity?


Physical Activity in First-Responders with Anxiety, Depresion and PTSD

Level: 3x Masters projects for interested research psychology or physiotherapy students

Supervisors: Prof Davy Vancampfort (davy.vancampfort@kuleuven.be), Prof S Seedat (sseedat@sun.ac.za

Research unit: SARChI Chair in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Read more about this research unit here.

Description: First-responders are regularly confronted with exposure to traumatic events. Evidence indicates that the prevalence of anxiety and depression is around 44.2% (95% CI 41.6% to 46.7%) in South-African first-responders (Ward et al., 2006). Prevention and treatment of anxiety and depression are therefore essential. Physical activity has the potential to be a low-cost intervention that may prevent anxiety and depression or reduce symptoms in those suffering from it (Ashdown-Franks et al., 2019). However, it is unknown whether physical activity might also be a valuable intervention in first-responders. In order to explore this, more research is needed to investigate whether first-responders with anxiety or depression are insufficiently physically active (i.e. not complying with the physical activity recommendations of 150 min of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week). The current projects aims: (1) to explore physical activity levels in first-responders and compare levels in first-responders with versus without anxiety and/or depression. The current projects aim: (1) to explore physical activity levels in first-responders and compare levels in first-responders with versus without anxiety and/or depression. The 3 masters projects will cover the following topics: Topic 1. Differences in physical activity levels and stages of change between emergency services personnel with versus without anxiety, Topic 2. Differences in physical activity levels and stages of change between emergency services personnel with versus without depression, Topic 3. Differences in physical activity levels and stages of change between emergency services personnel with versus without PTSD.


South African Adolescence Sleep Intervention - SAASI qualitative component ​

Level:  Masters
Supervisors: Jani Nothling (janinothling@sun.ac.za), Sharain Suliman: (sharain@sun.ac.za)  
Research unit: SARChI Chair in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Read more about this research unit here.
Description: We are conducting a pilot study to examine the viability of delivering a low-cost sleep intervention programme, called the Transdiagnostic Sleep and Circadian Intervention (TranS-C-Youth). The study will examine whether this intervention, can improve sleep and symptoms of PTSD in adolescents, aged 15-19, living in the Cape Town area, who have screened positive for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We are urgently seeking a student, with experience in qualitative research, to undertake a Master's degree project. The candidate will assist with the qualitative component of the study, which will involve the following aspects:

  • Focus group discussions with participants allocated to the TranS-C-Youth intervention arm to enquire about the delivery process of the intervention, perceived benefits, what participants liked/disliked about the intervention and how the intervention could be improved upon in a future randomised controlled study.
  • Focus group discussions with parents and teachers of participants to enquire about the process of getting involved in the study, perceptions about the intervention, beliefs about the benefits of participation, barriers to participation and how the intervention/practical arrangements could be improved.
  • Focus group discussions with interventionists to enquire about their experience of the training provided, the process of delivering the intervention, perceptions of the different aspects/modules of the intervention, how participants received the intervention and how the content and method of delivery of the intervention could be improved upon. 


Underpinnings of cognitive deficits in stress-related disorders 

Level:  PhD
Supervisors: Dr Susanne Young (susanneyyoung@gmail.com), Prof Soraya Seedat (sseedat@sun.ac.za)
Research unit: SARChI Chair in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Read more about this research unit here.
Description: More studies are needed to explore the possible biological underpinnings of cognitive dysfunction in stress-related disorders. This study will involve a collaboration between the University of Hamburg and Stellenbosch University, and will examine the relationship between brain and bodily functioning in populations with stress related disorders (chronic fatigue and/or PTSD specifically). We would like to include measures such as the functioning of the HPA-axis, allostatic load, oxidative stress, autonomic nervous system functioning, movement abilities (motor timing/synchronization abilities) and psychological and neurocognitive functioning. 

 

Genetics of Anxiety Disorders

Level: Masters or PhD
Supervisors: Prof C Lochner (cl2@sun.ac.za)
Research unit: SA MRC Unit on Risk and Resilience in Mental Disorders. Read more here and here​
Description: This study aims to understand the genetic causes and symptoms of anxiety disorders (including obsessive-compulsive and spectrum disorders such as hair-pulling disorder or trichot​illomania (TTM), panic or social anxiety disorder).

Please address specific enquiries to Prof Lochner.​



Delineating endophenotypes of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), hair-pulling disorder (HPD; trichotillomania) and Parkinson's Disease: An integrated clinical, neurocognitive, genetic and imaging study

Level: Masters or PhD
Supervisors: Prof C Lochner (cl2@sun.ac.za ), Prof D J Stein (dan.stein@uct.ac.za)
Research unit: SA MRC Unit on Risk and Resilience in Mental Disorders. Read more here and here.
Description: This study aims to investigate the role of polymorphisms in specific candidate genes in accounting for variance in imaging and cognitive-affective data; and to assess the differences between groups in terms of performance of behavioural tasks.

A number of sub-studies are available, including:

  • Sociodemographic and clinical characteristics associated with increased severity of illness in OCD patients.
  • Symptom dimensions, smoking and impulsiveness in OCD.
  • Telomere length (and correlates) in OCD / trichotillomania.
  • Childhood trauma and suicidal ideation and the link to the different symptom dimensions in OCD.
  • Comparison of OCD with vs without BFRBs (body-focused repetitive behaviours).
  • Spectroscopy: OCD vs. controls; HPD vs. controls.
  • Structural and fMRI based investigations: OCD, HPD.

Please address specific enquiries to Profs Lochner and Stein.



Identifying reproducible brain signatures of obsesive-compulsive profiles

Level: Masters or PhD
Supervisors: Prof C Lochner (cl2@sun.ac.za ), Prof D J Stein (dan.stein@uct.ac.za)
Research unit: SA MRC Unit on Risk and Resilience in Mental Disorders. Read more here and here.
Description: This study aims to identify reproducible neuroimaging signatures that distinguishes those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) from other conditions and healthy controls. This is a multi-site project with 5 sites including South Africa, Brazil, India, the Netherlands and the United States of America.

A sub-study available, include:

  • Sertraline treatment trial over 12 weeks with naturalistic follow-up for 12 months, with MRI pre- and post-treatment.

Please address specific enquiries to Profs Lochner and Stein.



Social cognition in social anxiety disorder: Correlates with fiunctional connectivity and neuropsychological measures

Level: Masters
Supervisors: Prof C Lochner (cl2@sun.ac.za ), Prof D J Stein (dan.stein@uct.ac.za)
Research unit: SA MRC Unit on Risk and Resilience in Mental Disorders. Read more here and here.
Description: ​Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a common psychiatric condition characterized by exaggerated fear of public scrutiny and social interactions which severely impacts functioning of those affected. This study (of which data collection has stopped) aims to investigate the underlying biology (including genetics, neurotransmitter systems and systems neuroscience) of SAD with the objective that such research will better explain pathophysiology and better direct treatment strategies. Data are available for analysis.

Please address specific enquiries to Profs Lochner and Stein.​



Prediction and prevention of PTSD

Level: Masters
Supervisors: Dr S Suliman (sharain@sun.ac.za), Prof S Seedat (sseedat@sun.ac.za​)
Research unit: SARChI Chair in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Read more about this research unit here.
Description: The importance of identifying those who may be at risk of developing PTSD and providing treatment as early as possible has been highlighted in recent years. This prospective study aims to identify whether (i) clinical and trauma-related factors, (ii) neurocognitive performance and (iii) telomere length can predict who will develop PTSD and related disorders following trauma, and whether (ii) a brief internet-based early intervention is successful in reducing the development of PTSD and other disorders in the year following a traumatic event.

 

Anxiety and anxiety disorders in Parkinson's disease

Level: Masters/MMed
Supervisors: Dr Leigh van den Heuvel (llvdh@sun.ac.za)
Research unit: The Shared Roots of Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Cardiovascular Disease Project. Read more about this research unit here.
Description: This project aims to compare state and trait anxiety in Parkinson's patients and controls, and determine factors associated with anxiety disorders in Parkinson's disease patients.

 

The association between stress, anxiety and physical activity in mixed-ancestry South Africans

Level: Masters/MMed
Supervisors: Dr Leigh van den Heuvel (llvdh@sun.ac.za)
Research unit: The Shared Roots of Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Cardiovascular Disease Project. Read more about this research unit here.
Description: This project aims to determine whether there is a relationship between physical activity and sedentary behaviour and self-perceived stress and anxiety.

 

Physical activity in PTSD

Level: Masters/MMed
Supervisors: Dr Leigh van den Heuvel (llvdh@sun.ac.za)
Research unit: The Shared Roots of Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Cardiovascular Disease Project. Read more about this research unit here.
Description: This project aims to compare physical activity and sedentary behaviour in PTSD patients and controls, and determine if physical activity is associated with PTSD severity.


3. Addictions

​Compulsitivity/impulsivity in methamphetamine use disorder and gambling disorder 

Level: Masters
Supervisors: Prof C Lochner (cl2@sun.ac.za )
Description:  Data collection has stopped; clinical, genetics and MRI data are available for analysis.


​Problematic use of the internet (PUI) and addictive behaviours: a comprehensive enquiry

Level: Masters or PhD
Supervisors: Prof C Lochner (cl2@sun.ac.za )
Description:  The aim of this study is to assess PUI in terms of its symptomatology, co-morbidities, and latent impulsive/compulsive phenotypes (cognition, personality traits).

Examining psychological mechanisms underlying problematic social network sites use

Level: Masters
Supervisors: Prof C Lochner (cl2@sun.ac.za )
Description: Please address specific enquiries to Prof Lochner.​

Binge-watching

Level: Masters or PhD
Supervisors: Prof C Lochner (cl2@sun.ac.za )
Description: Binge-watching, defined as watching multiple episodes of the same television (TV) series in one session, is a relatively new but widespread phenomenon. Survey data are available for exploring the psychological processes underlying this seemingly excessive behaviour.


4. Effects of drug and alcohol exposure

Effects of alcohol abuse on the brain in the context of earlier ART-initiation among HIV positive individuals in the Western Cape, South Africa

Level: Masters or PhD
Supervisors: Dr G Spies (ggiocos@sun.ac.za), Professor S Seedat (sseedat@sun.ac.za)
Research unit: SARChI Chair in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Read more about this research unit here.
Description: This study aims to understand the impact of antiretroviral therapy (ART) on brain degeneration in the context of high alcohol use by allowing comparison of ART initiation at different CD4 thresholds, and tracking this impact over time. The sample consists of both early and late ART initiators, with and without an alcohol use disorder. All participants undergo neuromedical, neuropsychological, and neuroimaging assessments at baseline and at follow-up.

 

Trajectory of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder across the lifespan

Level: Masters/MMed or PhD
Supervisors: Prof S Seedat (sseedat@su n.ac.za), Prof C Parry (cparry@sun.ac.za)
Research unit: FASER-SA. Read more about this research unit here.
Description: A number of projects are available including:

  • Early intervention/remediation research, via random assignment, case control studies, on development through nutritional and cognitive/behavioral enhancement techniques for children with FASD from 24 months of age forward. 
  • An efficacy study of biomarkers for alcohol consumption.
  • A detailed longitudinal study of the physical and cognitive/behavioral developmental trajectory of children from the newborn period to seven years of age. 
  • Study the nutrition of pregnant women.

5. Student health and wellness

Student health and wellness: a longitudinal multi-site international collaboration 

Level: Masters or PhD
Supervisors: Prof C Lochner (cl2@sun.ac.za), Prof J Bantjes​ (​jbantjes@sun.ac.za​)​​, Prof ​DJ Stein (​dan.stein@uct.ac.za)
Research unit: SA MRC Unit on Risk and Resilience in Mental Disorders. Read more here and here​​.
Description: Please address specific enquiries to Prof Lochner.​​

 

6. Neurocognitive effects of HIV and trauma

Biological endophytes of HIV and childhood trauma: A genetics, cognitive and imaging study

Level: Masters or PhD
Supervisors: Prof S Seedat (sseedat@su n.ac.za), Dr G Spies (ggiocos@sun.ac.za)
Research unit: SARChI Chair in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Read more about this research unit here.
Description:  This study aims to investigate genetics, cognitive and imaging outcomes in South African women living with HIV and childhood trauma. A rich dataset has already been established, with 5-year follow-up assessments in continuation. Opportunities to work with existing neurocognitive and neuroimaging datasets.​