Page 144 - UCT Research Report 2011

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UCT Research Report '11
“We’re working at the cutting edges of theoretical
frameworks,” says Dr Thomas. “What we are looking for is
a range of predictors – the biological and psychological
reasons for addiction and substance abuse – to create
models to understand who is likely to be an addict and
who is not.”
A major component of this is having accurate, relevant
data or measurements.
“To find out why people behave the way they do, or
how early childhood trauma and neglect affects them
as adults, or what the connection is between decision-
making capabilities and substance abuse, we need
measurements,” says Dr Thomas. “We need to design
complex tests that accurately capture even the subtlest of
cognitive functions and emotions.”
These types of tests produce valuable data that are
combined with theoretical insights to create what is called
cognotypes – patterns of weaknesses and strengths in
cognitive processes. Different disorders have particular
strengths and weaknesses in decision-making, reasoning,
judgement, language, attention, and memory. Substance
abusers, for example, have impaired decision-making
capabilities, not while on the drug necessarily, according
to Dr Thomas, but people with these inefficiencies are
more likely to become addicts – hence the vulnerability
of adolescents whose decision-making tools are not yet
fully developed.
Cognotyping is used to form the basis for diagnosis
of psychological and psychiatric disorders. A person’s
cognitive strengths and weaknesses form a pattern and
this pattern correlates to different disorders.
“What is so interesting now in neuroscience is that we
have the tools to see what’s happening in the brain; we
can measure heart rate, skin conductance systems, eye
movements. At this point, we can see into the entire body
and watch how it responds to its environment. That was
not possible 20 years ago,” says Dr Thomas.
Imaging the brain: snapshots
of cognition
The ability to see into the human brain is made possible
by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and Associate
Professor Ernesta Meintjes, of the Department of Human
Biology, is using the technology to study brain development
in children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
“We look at different brain circuits to try to understand what
is going wrong and where the damage is,” says Associate
Professor Meintjes, holder of the DST/NRF SARChI Chair in
Brain Imaging, based at the UCT medical campus.
The longitudinal study is based on findings from a
cohort of children and their mothers from Hanover Park,
who were recruited when the mothers were pregnant
almost eleven years ago. Researchers, professors
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“At this point,we can see into the entire
body and watch how it responds to its
environment. That was not possible
20 years ago.”
“In order to define the points of inter-
vention and prevention, the complex
network of interrelated causes and
effects of substance abuse and ad-
diction needs to be fully understood.”
Brain and Behaviour Initiative (BBI)
The Brain and Behaviour Initiative (BBI) enables cross-faculty, multi-disciplinary, collaborative research in the
cognitive and affective neurosciences, and brings together expertise on phenotyping, genotyping, cognotyping,
brain imaging, and molecular signatures to address brain-behaviour issues. New experimental techniques
include brain imaging, genetic testing, and neuropsychological assessment.
This, combined with new theoretical insights, has opened up significant potential for the advancement of novel
diagnostic tools and treatments for people with mental disorders. The initial focus on trauma and resilience has
extended to work in substance use and Neuro-HIV.
Director: Professor D. Stein E-mail: Web: