Neuroscientist Hopes to Counter Awareness Barriers Around Mental Disorders

PhD graduate of Philosophy in Human Physiology, Dr Khayelihle Brian Makhathini, plans to establish an awareness programme that will educate communities about mental disorders.

Makhathini, who currently works as an Academic Development Officer in the School of Laboratory Medicine, says he is looking forward to this year’s Canadian IBRO-USCRC School of Neuroscience gathering titled: Neural Circuits and Plasticity in Health and Disease, where he hopes to establish connections for his post-doctoral Fellowship programme.

‘In South Africa we have very few Neuroscientists while we have lot of people suffering from mental disorders, so from a very early age I have always wanted to work in the health sector,’ said Makhathini. ‘While studying towards my first BSc Medical Science degree I became aware that through Medical Science a lot needed to be done to develop a desire in young people to know more about the function of the human body and how important human physiology is in the medical field.’

His PhD thesis was on human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) which is a major health threat in South Africa and worldwide. Studies have shown that HIV affects the central nervous system (CNS), and can initiate a progressive neurodegenerative process culminating in HIV-associated dementia.

In Makhathini’s research, tat protein was injected into the hippocampus of rats as a model to investigate HIV-associated neurotoxic effects. Since many people living with HIV often find themselves subjected to harsh environments, the study used restrain stress to mimic these conditions and to investigate whether exposure to stressful conditions would exacerbate the neurotoxic effects of tat protein in the brain.

The continued reporting by clinicians of HIV-associated neurocognitive abnormalities in HIV-infected people – pertinent in the face of the current roll-out of antiretroviral treatment – indicates that existing HIV management remains only effective in controlling peripheral symptoms, but fails to address CNS impairments to the same level of success. Makhathini’s study assessed the therapeutic potential of rosmarinic acid in reversing the toxic effects of tat protein in the rat model of HIV-related brain malfunctioning.

Findings showed that repetitive stress induces neurocognitive and anxiety-like behavioral changes that were associated with alterations in the functioning of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a decrease in hippocampal neurotrophic factor concentration, and significant changes in hippocampal DNA methylation status.

Injecting tat protein into the hippocampi of rats produced similar behavioural changes to repetitive stress as seen in the dysregulation of the HPA axis and the activation of a pro-inflammatory immune response. Interestingly subjecting tat-treated animals to stress had a moderate effect with only the TNF-a release being further increased. Treatment with rosmarinic acid showed a promising anxiolytic effect and significantly reduced the toxicity of tat protein, suggesting that this plant extract could be considered as adjunct treatment in the management of HIV.

Makhathini grew up in a home where the family survived on his grandmother’s grant pension. ‘My mother and grandmother were very supportive – they prayed and motivated me to study so that I could get good results and apply for bursaries,’ he said

‘I am extremely grateful to my family, friends, colleagues, and my supervisor – the Dean of the School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences, Professor Musa Mabandla – for their unfailing support.’

Words: Lihle Sosibo