Neuropsychology milestone for UCT

11 July 2002
PROFESSOR Mark Solms has kick-started a new area of expertise in the Department of Psychology, following his appointment as the University's first chair of neuropsychology at the beginning of this year.

Born in Namibia and educated in South Africa (a boarding school in Pretoria and studies at Wits University), Solms was eager to return after a 13-year stint in the United Kingdom. By happy coincidence, the UCT Department of Psychology had for some time felt the need for a neuropsychologist, an idea supported by senior management.

Not only does Solms bring his wife (a South African expatriate as well), a six-year old son and 21-month old daughter, but also an enviable reputation earned in Europe and the United States, specifically at the University College London (UCL). His main area of expertise is related to dreaming, and his text on The Neuropsychology of Dreams is considered one of the most influential in the field.

Based in the UCT Department of Psychology, with a clinical post in the neurology department at Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH), Solms' brief is to set up a programme in neuropsychology at UCT.

According to Solms, neuropsychology, the study of how the brain influences behaviour, is a "newish" field in SA, but more so at UCT. "It's obvious that everything about our mental life must somehow be connected to the brain," he explained.

"What neuropsychology does is investigate the nature of that relationship."

The discipline also has a clinical aspect to it, and can help with the diagnosis of certain brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's, and in the management of those diseases. While it has been around for some time, the field rose to some prominence in the 1980s thanks to a number of technological advances, such as the development of PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanning.

Solms' first task at UCT is to bring psychology students up to speed, which is what he's been doing over the past few months with a group of Honours students. Next year he will teach both a Masters class (consisting of this year's Honours cohort) and induct a new Honours intake into the intricacies of the subject.

His ultimate aim, however, is to set up a doctoral programme at UCT, with possible collaborations with the other universities in the Western Cape.

"It's quite unusual in 2002 for there to be a psychology department that doesn't have neuropsychology as a major component of what they're doing," Solms said. This is not just the case at UCT, however, but elsewhere in the country as well, he pointed out.

But students are quite keen and he is already supervising five dissertations. He is also expecting students from Austria, Spain and the United States to join him, as well as a PhD student from Hong Kong, Calvin Kai-ching Yu, whom he taught at UCL.

UCT will also become a centre for some of his many international research projects (he still has quite a few running at UCL). His work at GSH will have a more clinical emphasis as he tries to establish, to a far better extent than before, what the real psychological effects are of different brain diseases.

South Africa has a broad patient population, offering greater research opportunities, said Solms. "To do this kind of research you need a wide range of clinical cases."

When not working at UCT and the Hospital, Solms is also trying to manage the stressful relocation from city (London) to farm (Franschhoek), and the strains and tensions of adaptation that go with it. But it's worth all the toil and labour, he said.

"I really wanted to come back to South Africa."

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