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The launch of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) multidisciplinary Neuroscience Centre, established to execute inter- and cross-disciplinary research and fast-track novel treatment options for neurological disorders, is an important step towards “Africanising” the vital discipline of neuroscience in South Africa.

A first of its kind for the country and the continent, the centre, established in partnership with the Western Cape Provincial Government, is housed at Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH) and aims to strengthen the existing partnership between UCT and GSH. The official launch took place on Tuesday, 10 March.

Thanks to generous support from the Wolfson Foundation and the Garfield Weston Foundation in the UK, the facility boasts state-of-the-art technology and facilities, and brings together scientists and academics in the field of neuroscience to integrate and improve patient care, research, teaching and training, as well as advocacy. It has been established specifically to address South Africa’s high burden of disease in mental and neurological disorders.

“This is a brain gain and it is in Africa. We have Africanised the discipline [of neuroscience].”

Speaking at the launch, MEC for Health in the Western Cape, Dr Nomafrench Mbombo, said she is proud that the centre will provide “tangible” work towards decolonising expertise in neuroscience and in the country’s healthcare sector.

She added that she is looking forward to witnessing the long-term contribution the facility will make to the field – not just in this country, but on the continent and in the world at large.

“We are really proud, and we are excited [about the launch of the centre]. This is a brain gain and it is in Africa. We have Africanised the discipline [of neuroscience],” Mbombo said.

Committed to collaboration

The world-class centre houses UCT’s Neuroscience Institute, established in 2015, and the GSH’s Neuroscience Clinical Unit (NCU). It includes a biobank, biomedical analysis laboratory, neurosurgical innovation hub and lecture auditorium.

The centre is committed to collaboration through strengthening existing networks and nurturing new partnerships with scientists across the continent. This, scientists believe, can be achieved by:

  • fast-tracking creative and collaborative clinical discovery and solving questions unique to South Africa’s needs and endemic burden of disease
  • establishing multidisciplinary clinical services through the NCU
  • providing a research space for academics via the Neuroscience Institute to study the causes and progression of neurological disorders
  • facilitating interdisciplinary research and providing scientists and clinicians with an opportunity to explore the fundamental causes of neurological disorders.

A dream come true

For UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, the centre is a dream come true and provides one example of how the university is bringing world-class expertise into Africa to build local capacity and improve understanding of the human brain.

She said she’s “encouraged” that the centre adopts a multidisciplinary research and training approach and brings together expertise in neurosurgery, psychiatry, imaging, genetics and neuroscience to inform better treatment options for people suffering from neurological disorders in the country and on the continent.

“As a university we want to be a leading power for transformation, not just on this continent, but for the world, including the world of neuroscience.”

“[This centre places] a particular emphasis on the needs of impoverished and developing communities. We are proud that this innovation will serve the public sector through Groote Schuur Hospital,” Phakeng said.

“As a university we want to be a leading power for transformation, not just on this continent, but for the world, including the world of neuroscience.”

ʻI am a believerʼ

UCT alumnus David Barnes, who donated R25 million to the facility, described himself as a “beneficiary” of the advances in modern neuroscience – “so I am a believer”.

He explained that in 2014 when doctors discovered that he had a brain tumour, he declined the standard bifrontal craniotomy procedure and opted for minimally invasive brain surgery. With the help of an endoscope, the tumour was removed through a small incision in his eyebrow that required two sutures and four days in hospital – a triumph of modern neurosurgery.

“During my recuperation I thought of ways to give thanks and to give back – and uppermost in my mind was UCT,” he said.

“I hope that the centre will one day be the epicentre of neuroscience in Africa. I’d like to end with one of my favourite quotes: ‘There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come’, and the time has come.”

12 March 2020 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo Lerato Maduna