BFRG Research Day 2018

Arista Botha

This week, on an ice-cold Monday morning, we held the third annual BFRG Research Day. It was a great opportunity to get together and share our research. With many students and honorary staff working off site, it is a rare occasion to have so many of our group together. We even had some former BFRG students joining us for the day. One of my favourite things about the BFRG is that we are such a diverse group of people with such different backgrounds. It means that, while our research interests complement each other, we can learn so much from one another. The presentation topics included sleep, pain, wildlife physiology and even geophagia.

Group photo research day 2018

The group photo from our research day.


We grabbed our jackets and our mugs, and settled in for some great research.



Staff and student members of BFRG, listening attentively to Leith’s talk on hypoxia during wildlife immobilisation.



Our research day just so happened to fall on one of the coldest winter mornings.

Our invited speaker, Leith Meyer, gave a fascinating talk on hypoxia during immobilisation of wildlife. Prof Leith Meyer is currently an Associate Professor in Veterinary Pharmacology and Director of the Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Studies and a senior honorary research fellow of the Brain Function Research Group. He completed his PhD through Wits with the BFRG, and thereafter continued to work for the BFRG and then for the Central Animal Services at Wits. Even though he is now at the University of Pretoria, he is still involved in BFRG research. Leith’s research interests include the behavioural and physiological consequences of veterinary management procedures in wildlife, such as capture, translocation, and anaesthesia. Leith’s research has a direct impact on wildlife conservation and management by helping to improve animal welfare and the success of capture operations.

Leith white rhino

White rhinos are one of the large mammals that are the most sensitive to immobilisation.

Leith’s talk explained the physiology behind opioid-induced hypoxia. Even though it is widely known that opioids can reduce breathing rate in animals, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Since opioids have a list of other effects, such as narrowing of the airways, stiffening of chest muscles, reducing the uptake of oxygen into the blood and increasing cell metabolism, it is possible for an immobilised animal to have hypoxia, despite breathing normally. Add to that the weight of the animal’s body pressing down on its own lungs while lying down and the stress and physical exertion of an animal being chased by a helicopter before being darted, and the situation looks very grave indeed. All of these factors need to be considered when monitoring immobilised animals and when thinking of treatments and interventions.

Kyle sleep fragmentation

Kyle explaining the sleep fragmentation protocol he followed for his honours project.

Kyle Gilday was an honours student with the BFRG last year. He presented data from his honours project and explained that taking a nap after a night of fragmented sleep can improve attentiveness, but not working memory. Results that highlight, once again, the importance of a good night’s sleep. Following onto the topic of sleep deprivation, Kirsten Redman explained the rationale and background behind her current PhD project looking at the effect of fragmented sleep on cardiometabolic disease risk factors on HIV positive patients. Kirsten has worked with the Sleep Lab since her honours year. She graduated from her Masters’ last year. Master’s student Bennedicte Futi presented on the effect of sleep fragmentation on pain perception in males.

Natalie Benjamin

Natalie Benjamin, demonstrating the exercise intervention that was used for children living with HIV sensory neuropathy.

Andani and John

Andani and John co-presenting their research projects investigating factors affecting the experience of pain, pain disclosure, and physical function in a rural South African cohort.

We had various interesting presentations on the topic of pain. Anne Ioannides presented her findings on factors that affected cold pain sensitivity in a healthy population. Gender, anxiety, depression and resilience indexes did not affect pain sensitivity, but ancestry did, with people of African descend having a greater rate of increase in cold pain and therefore lower pain tolerance compared to people with European ancestry. Natalie Benjamin showed how exercise improved the health and lives of children living with HIV sensory neuropathy. Temitope Fagbohun presented a systematic review of the literature on the demographics of neuropathic pain studies as part of his PhD. Imraan Patel gave the winning presentation of the day entitled “Comparing Sub-Saharan sensory thresholds in the second and third decades of life”. For his PhD, Imraan has been compiling sensory thresholds in healthy South Africans using (a standardised German method with fancy expensive equipment) with the aim to compare these to healthy European populations as recorded in the literature. Andani Ratshinanga, our NRF intern from last year, gave us insights into her Master’s project that she started recruiting patients for this year. She will be investigating factors affecting the experience of pain, pain disclosure, and physical function in South African women. John Mohale will be doing a similar project, focussing on South African men.

Wendy pangolin

Wendy Panaino presenting preliminary results from her PhD on pangolins.

We also had interesting talks on animal physiology. Postdoc Edward Snelling (better known as Ned), told us about his trip to Ethiopia, where he compared heart mass of sheep at different stages of their development. Interestingly enough, there was a sudden increase in heart mass right after birth. Gareth Zeiler presented early data from his PhD looking at intravenous infusions for the treatment of blood loss in anaesthetised cats. Arista Botha’s PhD results showed that goats on a restricted diet showed lower minimums and greater amplitudes in their daily body temperature rhythms compared to when they were fed a normal diet. Wendy Panaino has been studying pangolin in the Kalahari for her PhD project. In total she has collected body temperature data spanning over four different calendar years. She showed us some of her preliminary data. Not only do pangolins have much lower body temperatures than most other mammals (33 to 34 °C, compared to the normal 37 to 38 °C), but they also showed some interesting patterns across different seasons and between years which received varying amounts of rainfall. Further data analysis will hopefully soon give us more insight into the physiology of this elusive mammal.

Valery introduction

Valery Phakaogo is our DST-NRF sponsored intern working for the BFRG this year. We asked her to tell us about her Master’s project on the practice of geophagia.

Valery Geophagia

Valery explaining how and where people collect soil for consumption.

In addition to the BFRG research that was presented, we asked our DST-NRF intern of this year, Valery Phakaogo, to tell us more about her Master’s project on geophagic practices. This concept was new to many of us, but apparently this is a very common practice in some areas of South Africa. These people, mostly women, eat soil, not only because they believe it has health benefits, especially during pregnancy, but mostly because they crave it and enjoy the taste. They are also very selective to the type and the location of the soil they collect for consumption.

Our two prize winners, Imraan Patel (1st place) and Edward Snelling (Ned, 2nd place) with our judge for the day, Leith Meyer.

It was an inspiring day, filled with informative talks, lots of coffee to fight off the cold, and, most importantly, great company. Thank you to everyone who made this day possible, especially Prinisha Pillay for all her hard work planning this day, and, of course, to everyone who attended.


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