LMIC Meaker Visiting Professor Sian Hemmings, Stellenbosch University, South Africa

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder: The role of the microbiome in a high-risk South African population
Dates of visit: 9 Jul - 19 Jul 2018

Profile picture of Professor Sian HemmingsBiography

Professor Hemmings completed her postgraduate degrees, as well as postdoctoral work at Stellenbosch University, in the field of psychiatric genetics. She is currently the Head of the Neuropsychiatric Genetics Laboratory at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University. Here, she directs the genetics and molecular-based research into anxiety- and stress-related disorders, particularly posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and also has strong research interest in foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Her group’s current research involves investigating PTSD and FASD from a systems-biology point of view, integrating information from a variety of sources (genetic, epigenetic, transcriptomic and microbiome) to delineate the molecular aetiology of the disorders.

As her group is the only dedicated neuropsychiatric genetics laboratory in South Africa, they have a wide-ranging interest in our work from students from South Africa, as well as other countries in Africa. Prof Hemmings currently supervises a number of postgraduate students, and she is passionate about transferring knowledge to these students, facilitating the progress of scientific research in sub-Saharan Africa. She has made various significant contributions to research into the genetics of anxiety disorders, and collaborates with a number of other international researchers on research projects.


Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a serious global public health concern, is an overarching term encompassing a variable ensemble of disabilities caused by prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE). In South Africa (SA), FASD prevalence higher than anywhere else in the world. Arguably the most profound consequences of FASD are the enduring neurodevelopmental abnormalities and cognitive deficits, which increase risk for secondary disabilities, such as mental health problems, in later life. The microbiome is emerging as a key player in neurodevelopment, yet research is still in its infancy. The overarching aim of the proposed research is therefore to investigate the role that the maternal and offspring
gut microbiome play in FASD in a high-risk population in SA. If maternal and/or offspring dysbiosis is found to be involved in risk for FASD, rebiosis (modification of an individual’s microbiome to achieve effective balance and improved health) by means of pre- or probiotic intervention represents a safe, tractable option that could alleviate some of the neurodevelopmental sequelae consequential to PAE. The collaborative project
between the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University in SA, and the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol will investigate changes in the maternal gut microbiome as a result of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, and how these alterations affect the gut microbiome of infants who are exposed to alcohol prenatally. This international partnership will bring together the disciplines of basic and epidemiological science, facilitating bilateral knowledge transfer and building analytical capacity in SA. In addition, the proposed research will lay the groundwork for successful future collaborations between the research teams in Bristol and Stellenbosch, and in doing so, work towards a
common goal of early diagnosis and prediction of infants and children most at risk for developing FASD, and early intervention through the identification of modifiable determinants.

During her stay in Bristol, Professor Hemmings will be hosted by Dr Luisa Zuccolo (Population Health Sciences) and will give the following seminars (dates and times TBC):

Tuesday 17th July, 4-5 pm, Lecture Theatre 1, 43 Woodland Road
From Gut to Brain: The Microbiome In Psychiatric Disorders
IAS seminar open to all
This lecture will review the fascinating field of the gut microbiome and the role that it plays in the aetiology of psychiatric disorders, particularly stress-related disorders. Prof Hemmings will present a review of current literature, as well as some results from her own research group.

Monday 16th July , 12- 1pm, seminar room OS6, Oakfield House, Oakfield Grove
Genetic and Epigenetic Aetiology of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD): Focus on South Africa
MRC IEU seminar also open to BMS and all, but principally attended by IEU researchers and PhD students
This lecture will review current findings on the genetic and epigenetic aetiology of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, with a special focus on South Africa, which has the highest global prevalence of FASD.