Forging ahead with brain think tank

Dr Ursula Rohlwink.

A post-doctoral research fellow attached to Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital is part of the small group of neuroscientists, dubbed The Cortex Club, seeking better ways to treat brain trauma – a leading cause of death in the youth.

Dr Ursula Rohlwink splits her time between research for the Neuroscience Institute – the only formal institute of its kind on the African continent – and her work at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, where she works in the paediatric neurosurgery unit.

She is involved in several research projects, including traumatic brain injury, brain infection and cancer.

Dr Rohlwink said it was alarming that most cases of head trauma – the leading cause of non-natural death and injury among the country’s youth – were preventable and that the “massive” burden of disease resulting from brain injury went largely unrecognised.

“Trauma to the head is a major cause of both death and disability. While a lot of patients are left physically affected after trauma, almost all of them are left mentally changed,” she said, giving an example of a child who becomes unruly or undergoes a personality change after suffering a head injury. This poses challenges both for the child and their family.

A brain injury, she said, could alter the person’s life trajectory, affecting education, relationships and earning potential.

Children not wearing seatbelts in car crashes were the leading cause of brain trauma in young children, she said, followed by cars hitting pedestrians and security gates falling on children.

Dr Rohlwink recalled two children who had been rushed to Red Cross on the same day: one was a little boy who had gone to the shop with his mom for an ice-cream. His car was hit in the parking lot by another driver. It was not a particularly hard collision, but it was enough. The 10-year-old boy was declared brain dead following the collision. His mother donated his organs so that three other children could live.

The other child was a little girl who had been shot in the head during gang violence. She survived and made a good recovery.

Although she has a PhD in neuroscience and is exposed to the clinical environment, Dr Rohlwink is not a clinician. But as a scientist who is part of the clinical team at Red Cross, she gets to do clinically relevant research.

Dr Rohlwink was the first student to enrol to do her Master’s degree in neuroscience at UCT in 2009.

The course was so new it didn’t even feature in the UCT course booklet. Later, she was again the first student to register; this time for her PhD in neuroscience at UCT.

“It was a lonely but exciting time for neuroscience at UCT, but it was really the start of what has become a truly world-class institution, with Honours degrees being planned and undergraduate programmes being planned,” she said.

Together, Dr Rohlwink and Professor Graham Fieggen, head of the division of neurosurgery at UCT, started a neuroscience forum to create a space for neuroscientists to work together.

Informally known as The Cortex Club, the members of this team are part of UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences and work with Groote Schuur academic hospital. They are led by Professor Fieggen.

The Cortex Club idea has generated similar clubs all over the country, and Dr Rohlwink said there were plans to have a symposium to bring them all together and include the clubs from Toronto and Oxford.

Doctors from across Africa came to UCT to do their neurosurgical training, which could lead to additional research partnerships being forged, she said.

Dr Rohlwink is also involved in research with paediatric tuberculosis meningitis.

And, as if her schedule isn’t full enough, she is offering some insights into neuroscience in the Summer School Neuroscience Programme at UCT. “The human brain is the last and greatest frontier in medicine – our quest to uncover the secrets of the organ that still exceeds the capacities of all of humankind’s technological achievements and holds the truth of who we are,” she said.