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Programme highlights:

  • To date, DPHRU has conducted a large amount of research on adolescent growth, puberty, metabolic
    function, obesity, cognition and mental health using data from both the Birth to Twenty Plus and Siyakhula longitudinal cohorts. These have been published in high impact factor journals with significant media and policy impact.
  • We have secured funding to extend our adolescent portfolio with a new contemporary cohort of young adolescents (the BEACON cohort) in Soweto to complement the existing cohorts. Importantly, we have also begun to establish a robust programme of participant engagement with adolescents to strengthen our intervention design capacity.
  • We have expanded our non-communicable disease (NCD) work to include a strong adolescent mental
    health focus, driven by the mental health burden among South African adolescents including high
    rates of common mental disorders, suicides and conduct disorders. Our work has provided some of the first evidence from an LMIC of the robust relationship between executive function and mental health and it has substantial potential to augment existing behavioural interventions.

Ongoing research activities:

Behaviour, Executive function in Adolescents with Conduct disorders: the BEACON cohort
Principal Investigator Rochat (Wellcome Trust Intermediate Fellowship Project) and Sponsors Norris (DPHRU) & Stein (Oxford)

The BEACON cohort has been established to investigate the role of executive function (EF) in conduct disorders, violence and risky behaviours in adolescence with the view to understanding the potential of executive function as an intervention target in optimising behavioural interventions. Impaired or abnormal EFs are linked to a wide range of health and developmental outcomes, including poor academic achievement, obesity, violence, substance misuse and risk-taking.

This project uses a repeated measures cohort design to investigate the association between deficits in executive function (EF) and violent or risky behaviours in early adolescence (11-13 years), a period of rapid development and escalating risk, by collecting repeated measures from 1300 adolescents and their parents.

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400px wideThe principal research question tests the hypothesis that cognition underlies violent and risky behaviour among adolescents thus EF is a promising explanatory and intervention target. In addition, further hypotheses can be tested using data collected in BEACON including:

  • Whether EFs underlie risky behaviour among adolescents with other mental health disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety) and thus enhancing EFs may be a promising intervention target for mental health and education outcomes more generally.
  • Whether cognition, specifically deficits in EFs, underlies risky behaviour amongst adolescents without any mental health problems and thus may be a promising intervention target to reduce risk behaviours more generally in all adolescents.





South African Teen Lab (SA Teenlab): Engaging with the science of adolescence and adolescents themselves to understand the bio-psycho-social complexities of adolescence in urban South Africa

Principal Investigator Rochat and Co-Investigators Mpondo & Desai

There is an urgent need to integrate evidence from multiple biological, cognitive, psychological and social developmental domains to gain a more complex understanding of adolescent development in South Africa. It is equally important for successful intervention design that our understanding of adolescent behaviour is informed by the perspectives and experiences of adolescence themselves. New technological advances (increasing access to biomarkers, digital and observational methodologies) have potential to complement and deepen traditional methodological approaches. However, less is understood about their validity, acceptability or feasibility. This cluster of projects includes a grant to Rochat from the DSI-NRF Centre for Excellence in Human Development (CoE-HUMAN), a CoE-HUMAN grant (Mpondo) and an NRF innovation fellowship (Desai).

Our team will undertake a series of participant engagement activities exploring parental and adolescent perspectives on adolescent participation in research, attitudes towards biomarker and biological data collection and exploring lived experience through digital storytelling, community walks and photovoice activities to better understand adolescent life in urban South Africa.

We will establish a teen laboratory ‘SA teen lab’ at DPHRU by creating a dedicated adolescent-friendly space where research, scientific experiments and engagement activities can take place. We will use the Teenlab to test the acceptability and feasibility of new methodologies (headcams, photo frame videos, wearables, digital footprints) to advance the science of objectively capturing all aspects of adolescent development, behaviours and relationships.