Funding for study on trauma of maternal separation

07 May 2007

A team of local and international researchers has received a four-year grant, worth about US$175 000

(R1 241 975), from the John E Fogarty International Centre of the US National Institutes of Health, for their work on trauma caused by maternal separation.

UCT's Professor Vivienne Russell of the Department of Human Biology, Professor Willie Daniels of the University of Stellenbosch and Professor Michael Zigmond of the University of Pittsburgh will pool data on how perinatal stress affects the brain and, moreover, how to counteract these neurological malfunctaions.

Using rats, Russell, a key member of UCT's Brain Behaviour Initiative (, and UCT collaborators Drs Edward Ojuka, Laurie Kellaway and Dirk Lang will focus on the impact of maternal separation on mitochondrial function and dopamine neurons in the brain. They will also test the effects of exercise on brain function in stressed rats, ie offspring whose mothers were removed for a few hours each day during their early stages of development.

Two of Russell's PhD students, Musa Mabandla and Fleur Howells, have already shown that exercise protects neurons in a rat model for Parkinson's disease, but less so in adult rats that have experienced acute prenatal or postnatal stress.

"Exercise increases neurotrophic factors in the brain that are probably involved in the learning aspect of training," Russell says.

This research could give invaluable insights into the effects of exercise on the brain, and to determine exactly how much exercise is necessary for it to have a protective effect on the human brain.

The major difference between rat and human brains is the size of the cerebral cortex - the human cortex is convoluted, with many folds, in an attempt to increase its size, while the rat's cortex is smooth, reflecting relatively little cortical control over behaviour.

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