The Brain-Behaviour Unit (BBU) is a multi-disciplinary, UCT-accredited collaborative hub of psychiatric neuroscience research. It focuses on work particularly relevant to the South African and African context, and comprises three interlinked Groups:
(1) Psychiatric Neurogenetics
(2) Psychiatric Neuroimaging
(3) Translational Neuroscience
The BBU uses a range of methods, including neurogenetics, neuroimaging, and animal models, with the aim of ultimately advancing diagnostic tools and treatments for people with mental disorders.
Post-Doctoral graduates and Doctoral students who would like to become involved in the BBU should contact Nienke Pannekoek for additional information.
To comprise a Unit of Excellence in brain-behaviour studies, to contribute to global efforts in the area, to lead work on problems that are particularly relevant to the developing world, and to support the strengthening of basic and clinical neuroscience at UCT.
Each of the BBU Groups houses a number of ongoing collaborative projects, all of which are focused on the common theme of psychiatric neuroscience.
Specific aims of the BBU are:
(i) To bring together expertise in psychiatric neurogenetics, psychiatric neuroimaging and translational neuroscience.
(ii) To apply these psychiatric neuroscience research approaches to areas of particular relevance to the developing world and South Africa.
(iii) To encourage Masters, Doctoral and post-Doctoral students with an interest in brain and behaviour studies.
The BBU collaborates with a broad range of Universities locally, in Africa, and across the world. Many projects nested within the BBU are supported by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), while individual grants have been given by local science councils
(eg. SAMRC, NRF, HSRC), international grant agencies (eg. NIH, NARSAD), and private donors (eg. Gates Foundation, NeuroGAP).
Shareefa Dalvie Nastassja Koen Raj Ramesar
Jonathan Ipser Nynke Groenewold
Nynke Groenewold Celia van der Merwe Taryn Williams Sarah Heany Olivia Wootton
(6) BBU Groups
A range of projects are currently nested within the BBU’s three research Groups, as described below:
Group heads: Drs Shareefa Dalvie & Nastassja Koen
The Neuropsychiatric Genetics in African Populations (Neuro-GAP) programme is an ambitious, multi-country project aiming to improve and achieve equity in mental health by expanding the infrastructure and research findings from large-scale psychiatric genetic epidemiology to Africa (click for more information). As there have been no large-scale studies on the genetics of neuropsychiatric disorders in African populations to date, this project addresses a key gap in the field. Specific research objectives are:
- To expand knowledge of the genetic and environmental risk factors for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism in Africa through large-scale sample collection, analysis and follow-up.
- To increase understanding of the genetics of African populations.
- To enhance neuropsychiatric genetic research capacity in Africa through the training of scientists and to support the development of locally led research programs.
Group heads: Drs Jonathan Ipser and Nynke Goenewold
The Psychiatry Neuroimaging Group (PNG) (http://dev.png.uct.ac.za) was recently established to help raise the profile of psychiatric neuroimaging research at UCT. The PNG’s core team includes investigators with expertise in a variety of neuroimaging techniques, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), structural MRI, diffusion tensor imaging, and resting state fMRI.
Large collections of brain imaging data are increasingly being made available to the global neuroimaging community as part of international research collaborations. The PNG aims to foster true “bench-to-bedside” clinically relevant research by helping investigators take advantage of these datasets. This will also add value to pre-existing collaborations between PNG members and projects such as the Enhancing Neuroimaging Genetics Through Meta-Analysis (ENIGMA) initiative (http://enigma.ini.usc.edu/). By facilitating access to these data, local researchers will for the first time be able to investigate common imaging markers across multiple psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and neuroHIV. Within the context of the BBU, greater collaboration with initiatives such as ENIGMA will help pave the way for future studies that are relevant to the diverse clinical population in South Africa.
Group heads: Dr Pieter Naudé
The Translational Neuroscience (TNS) group studies mechanisms involved in the neuropsychobiology of non-communicable and communicable disease. This group uses a translational research approach that includes the use of animal models and clinical research studies. A wide range of cutting-edge techniques are applied to address research aims, including multimodal imaging as well as laboratory-based neurochemical and neuroimmunological markers. Ultimately, this group aims to improve diagnostics and prognosis of individuals with mental disease/disorder by understanding the relevant neuropsychobiological underpinnings.
Current research includes the application of diverse translational neuroscience techniques to endemic and severe mental disorders, including psychotic disorders such methamphetamine-induced psychosis, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder; infectious diseases such as neuroHIV; and early developmental stressors (eg. maternal distress and pre-natal exposure to illicit substances) that are known to increase the likelihood of mental disorders.
(7) MEGA project
Promoting mental health is one of the main targets of UN´s SDG 2030. It has raised focus on the prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases, including children and adolescents’ mental health disorders, which constitute a major challenge for sustainable development. Keeping young people healthy has a positive impact on productivity and competitiveness, thus new innovative solutions are needed to promote mental health. For this reason an Erasmus MEGA project focus is to improve child and adolescent access to mental health services and appropriate care, by developing a mental health screening tool to be used in primary health care (PHC) settings in South Africa, Zambia and other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries. This will be achieved by a four-phase implementation plan. Phase one will investigate the mental health literacy of PHC practitioners to identify areas in need of development. A mobile health (m-health) application to screen for common child and adolescent mental health problems will be tested in Phase two. In phase three a tiered education and training program in the use of the m-health application and related mental health content will be implemented and evaluated. In the final phase the acceptability and feasibility of the m-health application in PHC centres at sites across South Africa and Zambia will be evaluated. The outcomes of this MEGA project will benefit primary health care professionals at a local level by increasing their competence to screen for mental health issues.
The project is being implemented by a consortium of 9 Universities
- Turku University of Applied Science, RUISKATU 8, 20740, Turku, Finland
- Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, Hamburg, Germany
- Riga Technical University, Riga, Latvia
- University of Zambia- Lusaka School of Nursing
- Lusaka Apex Medical University- Lusaka Zambia
- Stellenbosch University-South Africa
- University of Cape Town-South Africa
- University of Pretoria – Pretoria- South Africa
- University of Free State - Bloemfontein, South Africa
Project contact person: Professor Dan Stein
MEGA team photo
Official Project Logos
The BBU currently has positions available for post-Doctoral and Doctoral students. Interested students should contact Nastassja Koen.
BBU Post-Doctoral Fellowship
Applicants for the BBU Post-Doctoral Fellowship must have completed a PhD degree in a foundational discipline relevant to brain-behaviour studies (eg. psychiatry, psychology,
neuroscience, genetics) within the last 5 years, and who have not yet held any permanent or professional posts.
Applicants should have strong interpersonal skills, and be able to work in a collaborative fashion as part of a multi-disciplinary team.
Tenure of Fellowship
1 year, with renewal subject to available funds and satisfactory academic progress.
Value of Fellowship
Salary will be commensurate with the applicant's qualifications and research experience. Application for tax exemption will be made by the University on behalf of the successful candidate.
Applicants should send a copy of their CV, as well as a one-page outline of potential research directions, to Prof Dan Stein. Successful applicants will be required to comply with the University's approved policies, procedures and practices.
Brain and behaviour courses
A number of courses are available in the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health for students who want to become involved in brain-behaviour research. These include an MMed Sci degree with a focus on neuroscience, the MA Psychol Research, an MSc through the Faculty of Science, as well as various M Phils through the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health.
The MSc(MED) in neuroscience is by dissertation only. However, students may be required by their supervisors to attend relevant parts of the BSc(MED)(HONS) in physiology (neuroscience) techniques course and/or 3-week theoretical modules on topics such as neuroanatomy, memory & learning, neurodegenerative diseases etc. Interested parties should contact Prof Dan Stein.
Joint appointment posts (PGWC with UCT and Stellenbosch University) provide the opportunity for clinical-academic careers - please see the UCT Psychiatry and Mental Health Department website for more details.
(9) Contact us
Should you have any queries regarding the BBU, or should you wish to join the BBU mailing list, please do not hesitate to contact Shuretta Thomas.
The BBU acknowledges support from the following bodies:
* The University of Cape Town for funding and support
* The SAMRC for funding
* The NRF, HSRC, and NIH for individual grants to participating Principal Investigators in the BBU
* The Provincial Government of the Western Cape for its support for participating clinicians in the BBU