Opportunities

Opportunities

A variety of postgraduate opportunities have evolved as a result of the ongoing projects at CUBIC. These span the fields of biomedical engineering, psychiatry, psychology, physics, computer science, and radiology.

For students who want to be involved in brain-behaviour research please visit the Cross-University Brain & Behaviour Initiative website. Postgraduate imaging programmes are also offered by UCT Biomedical Engineering. If you are interested in any of the other disciplines please contact us and we will refer you to the relevant programme coordinators at the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town.

Volunteering Opportunities

1 . A PhD project on social anxiety disorder:
Neuroimaging research in social anxiety disorder (SAD)

Stellenbosch University is conducting neuroimaging research in social anxiety disorder (SAD).

Brain imaging research in the past has largely been focused on looking at regional differences in activity in the brain. So for example, researchers demonstrated that in the brains of people with SAD, there might be more activity in the amygdala (a part of the brain involved in anxiety) than would be expected in people without the disorder. While this work remains important, such regional differences only represent part of the picture!

Functional connectivity research is a recent method of brain analysis that allows scientists to examine how multiple, widespread connections in the brain result in these regional differences in activity. Groups of these connections form what are known as ‘neural networks’ and several of such networks have so far been detected. There is some evidence that one network in the brain (called the default mode network) may play a role in how social information is processed (social information includes our perceptions and thoughts about other people and how they perceive us).

We are interested in networks in the brains of SAD sufferers and whether they differ from those without the disorder. We want to investigate whether network differences can be linked to how people with SAD process social information. We also want to see the effect of treatment (using an established treatment for SAD – moclobemide) on these networks.

As part of our research, we soon plan to recruit 15 volunteers with SAD and 15 volunteers without SAD (for comparison) to take part in a study that aims to begin in January 2015. All participants will undergo two types of brain scan (FDG PET/CT and fMRI) and a series of psychological tests. SAD volunteers will then receive an 8-9 week course of moclobemide followed by repeat testing and scanning. Excluding the initial (screening) visit, SAD participants will need to attend 8 study visits over the course of 9 weeks, while control participants will need to attend 4 study visits over the course of 1-2 weeks. Participants will be reimbursed for their food and travel costs.

Eligibility criteria:

• Over the age of 18
• Fluent in English (the psychological tests are only available in English)
• Right-handed (left-handed people’s brains are different)
• Not pregnant or breastfeeding
• No dominant psychiatric conditions other than Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD participants)
• No significant psychiatric conditions at all (volunteers without SAD)
• Not currently on any medications for a psychiatric condition, or willing to temporarily interrupt medications to participate in the study.
• Not on any medications that might interfere with moclobemide (SAD participants)
• No previous or current medical conditions that directly affect the brain, (including previous head injury with loss of consciousness or brain surgery), no metal implants in the skull, no diabetes (affects the scan)
• Able to lie still in a scanner for up to an hour at a time

If you are interested (either as a SAD participant or as someone without SAD), please speak to any of the investigators:

Prof Christine Lochner (cl2@sun.ac.za ): Tel: 021 – 938 9179
Dr Alex Doruyter (doruyter@sun.ac.za): Tel: 021 – 938 5290
Dr Sharain Suliman (sharain@sun.ac.za): Tel: 021 – 938 9020

2. A PhD project on gambling disorder:

A clinical, genetics and brain-imaging study on gambling disorder
Do you suffer from gambling disorder (also known as compulsive or pathological gambling)? Or are you interested to participate in a study on gambling disorder? You can take part in an important new study on the condition that is conducted by the MRC Unit on Anxiety & Stress Disorders at the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town.
The study covers many aspects of gambling disorder (GD) – symptoms, illness severity and impact on the quality of life, while also looking at genetics and the structure of certain brain regions implicated in this condition.

What is gambling disorder?
In DSM-IV (which is one of the major diagnostic tools used in practice), pathological gambling was categorised as an impulse control disorder. In DSM-5 however, this condition has been renamed gambling disorder and now falls under the category of substance-related and addictive disorders. Gambling disorder is a psychiatric disorder characterised by the uncontrollable urge to gamble despite serious personal or social consequences. Individuals with gambling disorder may continually chase bets, hide their behaviour, tell lies about where they go, how much they spend or owe, accumulate debt or even resort to fraud or theft in order to continue gambling.
These behaviours are often associated with depression, substance abuse and dependence, and difficulties with interpersonal relationships.

How prevalent is this disorder in SA?
Current estimates, derived from urban areas in 3 provinces, suggest that 1.4% of South Africans are experiencing pathological gambling, with 5.6% of regular gamblers meeting the criteria for gambling disorder (according to data from The National 2006 Prevalence Study on Gambling and Problem Gambling in South Africa, (Collins et al., 2006)). The causality or “working” of this condition is not yet fully established. It can therefore be argued that it is necessary to do research on GD, so that the symptomatology and the underpinnings can be better understood and that improved treatments can be found.

Who will be conducting the research?
This research project draws on the expertise of the MRC Unit on Anxiety & Stress Disorders at the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town in South Africa. The work is cross-disciplinary in nature (psychologists, psychiatrists, geneticists and brain imaging experts are involved) and puts them on par with, and even ahead of other GD researchers worldwide.

What will the study entail?
Specifically, the study covers clinical aspects of GD (e.g. the symptoms, illness severity and the impact on their quality of life).
Other foci are the structure of certain brain regions implicated in this condition, and participants’ thinking patterns and emotional responses, as determined by structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), respectively.
The study also aims to find out more about the role of specific polymorphisms in certain candidate genes (the hereditary material) that contribute to the development of GD via analysis of candidate genes of patients from South Africa.
Who can volunteer?
– Persons with problems related to problematic gambling
– Healthy controls
– Volunteers should be right-handed and aged between 18 and 65 years

How will it work?
Participation involves attendance of 2 sessions, with the first session comprising a screening interview, filling out of self-report questionnaires and taking a blood sample for genetic analysis.
If suitable for brain imaging, participants are scanned during a subsequent session.
Participants also complete a number of neuropsychological tasks in the form of computerised games.
Participation is cost-free and participant information will be kept strictly confidential.

Who to contact to take part
If you want more information or want to participate, please contact: MHIC 021 9389229, e-mail: mhic@sun.ac.za; Prof Christine Lochner 021 – 938 9179, e-mail: cl2@sun.ac.za; Ms Natascha Horak, 021 – 938 9762, e-mail: nhorak@sun.ac.za for more information.

3. A project on obsessive-compulsive and hair-pulling disorder (trichotillomania)

This is an important clinical, genetics and brain-imaging study conducted by the MRC Unit on Anxiety & Stress Disorders at Stellenbosch University in conjunction with Cambridge University in the UK. The study covers clinical aspects of these disorders – symptoms, illness severity, impact on the quality of your life, treatment history and childhood trauma history, while also looking at genetics and the structure of certain brain regions implicated in these conditions.

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

In DSM-IV (which is one of the major diagnostic tools used in practice), OCD was categorised as one of the anxiety disorders. In DSM-5 however, OCD now falls under a grouping of obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. OCD is a psychiatric disorder characterised by obsessions and/or compulsions. Obsessions are persistent, “self-generated” (i.e. not delusional or psychotic) thoughts or mental images that are time-consuming, cause significant distress or functional impairment. Compulsions, on the other hand, are repetitive mental (e.g. counting, repeating words) or behavioural (e.g. hand-washing, checking) acts that the person feels obliged to perform in an attempt to reduce the anxiety or distress or preventing some dreaded event. However, compulsions are not inherently enjoyable, are often extremely time-consuming and do not result in the completion of a useful task.

What is hair-pulling disorder (HPD)?

HPD is also now categorized as an obsessive-compulsive related disorder. It is characterized by recurrent pulling out of one’s hair resulting in hair loss, with repeated attempts to decrease or stop hair pulling.The hair pulling causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

How prevalent are these disorders in SA?

OCD, together with other mental disorders like HPD, account for the 2nd largest portion on our national burden of disease after HIV/AIDS. The causality or “working” of these conditions is not yet fully established. It can therefore be argued that it is necessary to do research on dsiroders such as OCD and HPD, so that the symptomatology and the neurobiological underpinnings can be better understood and that improved treatments can be found.

Who will be conducting the research?

This research project draws on the expertise of 2 teams, one from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and one from the MRC Unit on Anxiety & Stress Disorders at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. The work is cross-disciplinary in nature (psychologists, psychiatrists, geneticists and brain imaging experts are involved) and puts them on par with, and even ahead of other OCD and HPD researchers worldwide.

What will the study entail?

Specifically, the study covers clinical aspects of the disorders (e.g. the symptoms, illness severity, impact on their quality of life, treatment history, and childhood trauma history). Other foci are the structure of certain brain regions implicated in these conditions, and participants thinking patterns and emotional responses, as determined by structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), respectively. The study also aims to find out more about the role of specific polymorphisms in certain candidate genes (the hereditary material) that contribute to the development of OCD, HPD and SAD via analysis of candidate genes of patients from South Africa.

Who can volunteer?
Researchers are looking for …

– Volunteers who are right-handed and aged between 18 and 65 years)
– Persons with OCD or HPD
– First-degree relatives of persons diagnosed with OCD
– Healthy controls

How will it work?

Participation involves attendance of 2 sessions, with the first session comprising of a screening interview, filling out of self-report questionnaires and taking a blood sample for genetic analysis. If suitable for brain imaging, participants are scanned during a subsequent session. Participants also complete a number of neuropsychological tasks in the form of computerised games. Participation is cost-free and participant information will be kept confidential.

Who to contact to take part

If you want more information or want to participate, please contact: Prof Christine Lochner 021 – 938 9179, e-mail: cl2@sun.ac.za or Ms Elsie Breet 021 – 938 9654, e-mail: elsie@sun.ac.za for more information.

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