Department of Psychiatry​​

Research - Research Units

SAMRC/SU Extramural Unit on the Genomics of Brain Disorders

Director: Prof Soraya Seedat (Email: ​​sseedat@sun.ac.za)

Co-director: Assoc. Prof. Sian Hemmings (Email:smjh@sun.ac.za)

The Extramural Unit (EMU) on the Genomics of Brain Disorders (GBD) aims to identify genomic biomarkers, using a systems biology approach, for a suite of Brain Disorders across the lifespan, based on clinically-derived data and through leveraging complementary expertise and skills. The Brain Disorders that form the focus of our investigations include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), HIV associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND), foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), schizophrenia and psychosis spectrum disorders, and Parkinson's Disease, and are matched with the expertise of Unit Members, who have been working in their respective fields for a number of years, and have numerous well-established collaborations, both locally and internationally.

We aim to think beyond current clinical classification, and to facilitate phenotyping and analysis of cross-disorder subgroups and subtypes that have biological validity and may be able to better predict disease development or treatment response. This is achieved by addressing cross-cutting, translational neuroscience questions relevant to reducing the burden of these Brain Disorders in South Africa, using a toolkit comprising innovative multi-'omics' (e.g. genomics, transcriptomics, epigenomics, microbiomics), applied cognitive-affective, and brain imaging (e.g. functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging, spectroscopy, diffusion tensor imaging) investigative platforms.

Through the SAMRC/SU EMU on the Genomics of Brain Disorders, we will contribute to advances in genomics, neural signatures, and behavioural sciences that will explicate aetiology and new treatments for brain disorders in a meaningful way, and facilitate translation of the findings to the South African population, thus addressing local and national needs.

Our research mandate includes:

(1) the application of multimodal genome and imaging technologies, together with a range of computational and statistical methods to facilitate more precise molecular signatures and characterisation of genetically complex Brain Disorders, that will aid in guiding and tailoring their clinical management;

(2) establishment of a biorepository comprising a wide range of biological samples (e.g. DNA, RNA, skin, hair) collected through an ensemble of projects;

(3) establishment of optimised protocols for the generation and maintenance of Brain Disorder-specific induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) cell lines in our laboratories;

(4) training a new generation of clinicians and basic neuroscientists versed in genomic, other 'omic', and neuroimaging techniques, leveraging the expertise and critical mass of EMU key members and collaborators.

In addition to building research capacity in psychiatric genetics, our goals are to secure funding for new projects, establish new collaborations, produce scholarly outputs and establish community partnerships (more specifically, with the 'community science' project, SANeurogut).​

Unit Members:

Prof Soraya Seedat
Distinguished Professor & Executive Head of the Dept. of Psychiatry, FHMS, SU

Research experience:

Assessment and treatment of anxiety disorders, NeuroAIDS, and FASD (which includes evaluation prevention and intervention strategies in high-risk women and affected children).

Maternal-infant microbiome studies.

Epigenetic studies of FASD.

Global mental health, with a special interest in clinical and translational work in childhood and adult posttraumatic stress disorder.

​​​​Prof Sian Hemmings
Associate Professor, Dept. of Psychiatry  & Head of Neuropsychiatric Genetics Lab, FHMS, SU

Research experience:

Genomics of psychiatric disorders (focus on PTSD and FASD).

Epigenomic analyses in PTSD and FASD.

RNA-seq analyses in PTSD.

Gut Microbiome research in psychiatric disorders.

Mrs Vanessa Jones
Unit Administrator, Dept. of Psychiatry, FHMS, SU

Dr Yolandi Espah
Research Assistant, Dept. of Psychiatry, FHMS, SU
Prof Jonathan Carr
Professor, Dept. of Neurology, FHMS, SU

Research experience:

Genetics of Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy & Parkinson's Disease.

Functional MRI expertise.

Prof Soraya Bardien
Professor, Dept. of Biomedical Sciences, FHMS, SU

Research experience:
Genetics of Parkinson's Disease.

Mitochondrial dysfunction in Parkinson's Disease.

Whole-exome sequencing.

Prof Louise Warnich
Professor, Dept. of Genetics, Faculty of AgriSciences, SU & Dean of Faculty of Science, SU

Research experience:
Pharmacogenomics of Schizophrenia.

Genetics of Schizophrenia.
Prof Bonga Chiliza
Head of Dept. of Psychiatry, Associate Professor and Chief Specialist, Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, UKZN

Research experience:
Schizophrenia research.

Genetics of Schizophrenia.

Pharmacotherapy trials in Schizophrenia.
Dr Stefan du Plessis
Researcher, Dept. of Psychiatry, FHMS, SU

Research experience:
Fronto-striatal systems and childhood trauma in the context of Schizophrenia and Parkinson's Disease.

Neuroimaging: fMRI, sMRI, DTI.


Dr Sharain Suliman
Research Psychologist, Dept. of Psychiatry, FHMS, SU

Research experience:
Epidemiology, identification, assessment, prevention and treatment of anxiety disorders, in particular PTSD.

Data collection pertaining to clinical interviews, self-report questionnaires and neuropsychological testing.

Dr Jacqueline Womersley
Research Scientist, Dept. of Psychiatry, FHMS, SU

Research experience:
Animal models of behaviour, specifically developmental stress, ADHD, Parkinson's Disease and drug acquisition, withdrawal and reinstatement behaviour.

Genetics of HAND.
Ms Erine Brocker
Clinical Psychologist, Dept. of Psychiatry, FHMS, SU

Research experience:
Transcranial magnetiic stimulation.

Clinical and neurocognitive assessment.

Phenomenology of FADS.
Dr Georgina Spies
Research Scientist, Dept. of Psychiatry, FHMS, SU

Research experience:

Neuropsychiatric aspects of HIV infection.
Dr Leigh van den Heuvel
Psychiatrist and Researcher, Dept. of Psychiatry, FHMS, SU

Research experience:
Clinical assessment of PTSD, Parkinson's Disease and Schizophrenia.

Neuroendocrinology assessment in PTSD.

Project Management.
Dr Olivia Matshabane​
Research Scientist, Dept. of Psychiatry, FHMS, SU

Research experience:

Ethical, Legal, Social and Cultural Implications of Neuropsychiatric Genomics