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Doctoral Students

Stevie Biffin

Thesis title: Differences in subcortical volumes on structural Magnetic Resonance Images and associated neurobehavioural differences in children exposed prenatally to alcohol from Cape Town, South Africa

Supervisor: Professor Ernesta M Meintjes
Co-supervisor: Dr. Christopher Warton

Thesis description: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is caused by prenatal maternal alcohol consumption and has life-long effects.  It is characterized by growth deficits, small head circumference, distinctive craniofacial dysmorphology (small palpebral fissures, flattened philtrum and thin vermillion) and behavioural and cognitive problems that stem from prenatal brain damage. Variations in the degree of brain damage range from microcellular, neurochemical and cellular dysfunction to gross structural abnormalities. Cognitive and behavioural dysfunction also varies in terms of degree of developmental delay or disability and severity and range of learning disabilities. Due to the varying effects of prenatal alcohol exposure, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) was created as an umbrella term under which the entire spectrum of outcomes related to prenatal alcohol exposure falls. It is not a medical diagnosis, rather, diagnoses such as FAS, partial FAS (pFAS) and alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) are forms of FASD, with FAS being the most severe diagnosis.

With the Western Cape Province having such a high prevalence of FAS and the devastating effects that FASD has on brain function, as evidenced by deficits in cognitive and behavioural functioning, investigation into the possible neuroanatomical and related functional changes that accompany this diagnosis is crucial. Structural brain changes may underpin the observed functional deficits and a better understanding of these changes may assist in planning more targeted interventions.   

This project has three primary aims. The first aim of this research project is to examine differences in volumes of selected neuroanatomical structures on Magnetic Resonance Images via manual segmentation. In addition, we will examine associations between the degree of alcohol exposure and brain volume reductions. The second aim is to investigate whether there are differences between the volumetric data from manual tracing and automated segmentation. The third aim is to investigate interhemispheric transfer of tactile information using a finger localization task. These aims will compare children exposed prenatally to alcohol to unexposed controls from Cape Town, South Africa.

Contact details: Email    Website

Francesca Du Toit

Thesis title: Increased risk of cerebral vascular accidents due to persistence of embryonic venous pathways in the adult brain

Supervisor: Professor Graham Louw

Thesis description: The cerebral venous system, unlike the majority of the rest of the body, does not generally follow the cerebral arterial system. Veins follow a morphologically complex pattern of development characterized by the formation of highly irregular networks of capillaries and the ultimate expansion of certain channels into definitive veins. Because of the multi-channelled beginnings and the number of options, the adult venous system is characterized by a higher incidence of anatomical variations than the arterial system (Carlson, 2014).
The unique embryology of the dural venous system leads to the venous channels being particularly prominent in the infant. A better understanding of the venous anatomy of the dural folds leads to a better understanding of the radiology (Mack et al., 2009).
The purpose of the study is to investigate the persistence of embryonic venous drainage pathways in the adult. The study will describe the common venous drainage patterns seen in the brains of children and correlate these findings to the venous drainage patterns seen in adults. The study will also aim to establish whether there is a link between persistence of embryonic venous pathways and cerebral vascular accidents in the adult.
The study is a cross-sectional/descriptive study using analytical and observational techniques.
The sample population will include all patients (children and adults) that underwent a MRI or venogram of the cerebral vasculature. This will allow the researcher to gather data at the Department of Radiology at the Groote Schuur Hospital as well as the Red Cross Children’s War Memorial Hospital.  

Contact details: Email

Devin Alexander Finaughty

Thesis title: The establishment of baseline data on large animal soft-tissue decomposition in two terrestrial habitats in the Western Cape, South Africa.

Supervisor: Professor Alan G. Morris

Thesis description: One of the most frequently-sought pieces of information in a forensic death investigation is the amount of time that has elapsed between that individual’s death and the discovery of their body, known as the post-mortem interval (PMI). A forensic anthropologist generally uses their knowledge of their local environment and how it affects the rate and process of decomposition to produce a rough estimate of PMI, which is usually informed by locally-obtained data regarding decomposition rates. However, no such data exists on decomposition in the Western Cape province of South Africa to support the formulation of such estimates. The current project, then, as its title suggests, seeks to establish this baseline data in order to improve estimates of PMI in local forensic cases. Further to this, the project seeks to translate the findings of the study into a practical product/package for use by the South African Police Services and local forensic practitioners to facilitate and optimise the collection of data necessary for the formulation of accurate PMI estimates.

Contact details: Email

Marlie Greeff

Thesis title: The morphology of the intraparietal sulcus of children prenatally exposed to alcohol in a Western Cape community of South Africa and its potential role on number processing

Supervisors: Dr. Christopher Warton and Professor Ernesta Meintjes

Project description: My main focus is the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) of the brain and how it may change in volume with children prenatally exposed to alcohol. This sulcus is also involved with basic arithmetic abilities and a volumetric change in the IPS may affect this. Our aim is to ultimately see whether a volumetric change in the IPS correlates with the number processing abilities in these children prenatally exposed to alcohol.

Contact Details: Email


Dr. Glen James Paton

Thesis title: Lumbosacral transitional vertebra morphology: a South African population.

Supervisors: Professor Graham Louw, Professor Scott A. Williams and Dr. Shahed Nalla

Thesis description: Lumbosacral transitional vertebra (LSTV) is an anatomical variation, observed unilateral or bilateral, in which the transverse process of the last lumbar vertebra exhibits signs of dysplasia (variation in vertical height) with varying degrees of fusion to the ‘first’ sacral segment (Southworth & Bersack, 1950; Hughes & Saifuddin, 2004; Jancuska et al., 2015). The estimated global prevalence rate for LSTV is 12.1%. There is a paucity of research into prevalence rates in Africa and no established data for South Africa exists.

Lumbosacral transitional vertebra can be associated with low back pain (LBP) and may impact the quality of life of the individual. Considerations for spinal biomechanics and treatment of LBP must therefore be tailored for these individuals. Better understanding of LSTV in a South African context can aid in targeted treatment both conservatively and surgically.

This project will utilise spinal imaging techniques such as radiographs and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as well as osteological analysis. The primary aims are to establish a prevalence rate estimate for three largest ethnic groups in the South African population as well as describe the variations in morphology in the South African sample. Comparative analyses will also be utilised to explore possible evolutionary aetiology.

Contact Details: Email

Graduated PhD Students

2017. Fleur Warton. PhD (Neuroscience). The neurostructural effects of prenatal exposure to methamphetamine in an infant population in the Western Cape. Supervisors: Prof Ernesta Meintjes and Dr. Chris Warton.

2016. Petra Maass.PhD (Biological Anthropology). A statistical shape analysis of the neurocranium and long bones. Supervisor: Dr Jacqui Friedling.

2015. Lakha Kavita. PhD (Biological Anthropology). Sequential changes in epiphyseal union in South African children between the ages of 6 up to 32 years using full body LODOX scans. Supervisor: Prof. Alan G. Morris.

2014. Adjenti Savior. PhD (Applied Anatomy). An investigation into the ultrastructural parameters of abdominal muscles in children and adolescents with spastic type cerebral palsy and the effect on postural muscle performance. Supervisor: Prof. Graham Louw.

2014. Dlamini Nonhlanhla. PhD (Biological Anthropology). The early inhabitants of the Upemba Depression of the Democratic Republic of Congo: a biological review of the cultural continuity theory. Supervisors: Prof. Alan G. Morris and Prof. Judith Sealy.

2014. Milner Brenda. PhD (Molecular Medicine). Isolation and characterisation of colon cancer stem cells and the effects of epigenetic modulation on pluripotent markers. Supervisors: Dr. Victoria Gibbon, Dr. Clem Penny, and Prof. Paul Ruff. University of the Witwatersrand.

2011. Clarke Carrie. PhD (Orthopaedics). Joint hypermobility syndrome and developmental coordination disorder in adults: exploring the association and the impact. Supervisor: Dr. Delva Shamley. Oxford Brookes University.

2011. Unger Marianne. PhD (Applied Anatomy). The role of the abdominal muscles in pelvic positioning and lower limb function in children with spastic type cerebral palsy. Supervisor: Prof. Graham Louw.

2009. Reilly K. PhD (Orthopaedics). Investigation of the differences in foot and ankle characteristics of patients with lower limb osteoarthritis. Supervisor: Dr. Delva Shamley. Oxford Brookes University.

2008. Phillips Vince. M. PhD (Biological Anthropology). The dental and skeletal maturation of South African children and the relation to chronological age. Supervisor: Prof. Alan G. Morris. University of the Western Cape.

2007. Friedling L Jacqui. PhD (Biological Anthropology). Grave tales: an osteological assessment of health and lifestyle from 18th and 19th century burial sites around Cape Town. Supervisor: Prof. Alan G. Morris.

2005. Draper C. PhD (Public Health). Medical students’ attitudes towards and perceptions of the Primary Health Care approach. Supervisor: Prof. Graham Louw.

2002. Peckmann Tanya. PhD (Biological Anthropology). Dialogues with the dead:  an osteological analysis of the palaeodemography and life history of the 19th century northern frontier in South Africa. Supervisor: Prof. Alan G. Morris.

2000. Bukenya Edmond EM. PhD (Biological Anthropology). The vertebral column in humans and selected non-human primates, and the functional structure of its transitional elements. Supervisor: Prof. Alan G. Morris and Prof Graham Louw.

1994. Steyn Maryna. PhD (Biological Anthropology). An assessment of the health status and physical characteristics of the prehistoric population from Mapungubwe. Supervisors: Prof. Alan G. Morris and Prof Maciej Henneberg. University of the Witwatersrand.