Why Africa Holds Huge Neuroscience Potential

Working in Africa provides neuroscientists with opportunities that are not available in other continents...
16 September 2022

Interview with 

Kirsty Donald, University of Cape Town


A drawing representing the map of Africa


"Working in Africa provides neuroscientists with opportunities that are not available in other continents. Populations in this region exhibit the greatest genetic diversity; they live in ecosystems with diverse flora and fauna; and they face unique stresses to brain health, including child brain health and development," as UCT neuroscientist Kirsty Donald writes. This, as she explains to Chris Smith, is a unique chance to develop ways to benefit the continent and also the field…

Kirsty - Neuroscience in Africa feels like it is an area of massive potential. The African region is one of the last remaining areas in the world where there is a young and relatively growing population. So what we are trying to communicate is the importance for us of optimising institutions and scientists, to be able to answer questions which are important for our region, but also to be able to contribute to the global questions in the area of neurological and mental health and neuroscience.

Chris - Those are the opportunities then. How do we capitalise on them? What's it going take to realise the opportunities and make the most of them while this window is open?

Kirsty - One of the things which is really encouraging about our area is that people coming from resource limited settings have a lot of resilience and resourcefulness with respect to how to use equipment, how to solve problems. You know, if you don't have a ready, made answer, you try and address it yourself. And so that mindset of resilience and resourcefulness is a huge opportunity to harness. A number of elements have been put forward by the community as things which we can use to build this community. One is a model of having hubs of expertise and systems of understanding the spread of expertise across the region. Ironically, COVID has facilitated this level of communication because of the more widespread use of virtual methods of communication. So, for example, having a database where you know, where all the MRI machines are in the country or in the region, where are they, who has access to them? Are they available for research or just for clinical use? Is there a possibility of adding more resources so that one can expand the community of people using a particular methodology? The other area, which is critical is mentorship for students coming through the system to develop critical thinking and scientific citizenship, being able to communicate your science, clearly being able to develop independence in your thinking, giving people experience of not only good mentorship, but being able to mentor themselves while in a mentoring process. There are a number of things which are easy to do. They don't necessarily cost money, but can really help move the field forward.

Chris - What's it going take to implement them though? So you've given me the opportunities. You've told me what your aspirations are and why they matter. Now, what about the practicalities? What's it going take to join up Africa? It's a big continent, lots of countries there. This is a huge job that you've just outlined. Yeah, huge potential huge job though. What's needed?

Kirsty - So what's needed are champions. The neuroscience institution, Cape Town aims at leading in this area at bringing not only different people in, from across the continent to be able to facilitate this emphasis on regional growth, rather than just local growth, but there are other virtual networks which are also driving this. So, for example, there's a network called CAMERA (The Consortium for Advancement of MRI Education and Research in Africa), led by scientists in Uganda. It's driving to run workshops in MRI work and get people speaking to each other across the continent so that they can ask questions and utilise equipment that is available to be able to answer relevant questions to the region.

Chris - So this is almost like a call to arms on your part. It's a call to action: community needed! We need to build the network. This is what we have in mind. Call us, let's start a conversation.

Kirsty - It is absolutely! It's call us, or expect our call. <Laughs>


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