Matie Voices

Dr Etienne van der Walt

Alumnus of the faculties of Science and Medicine and Health Sciences

“I feel incredibly privileged to be a member of the most fascinating, intelligent, yet humble, neurology family.”

Dr Etienne van der Walt, well-known neurologist and founder of AmazingBrainz and Neurozone, only discovered his passion for medicine when he was already a third-year student at Stellenbosch University (SU), majoring in chemistry and mathematical statistics. It took him even longer to realise that his real calling was to study the mysteries of the brain.

“I started out as a first-year at Dagbreek residence in 1985 with the plan of working at Sasol one day and even spending time during my holidays at various Sasol plants,” Etienne recalls. “However, in my third year I realised that I really wanted to become a doctor – this profoundly changed my life. I started out with an MBChB in 1988 and after completing a BMedSc between my third and fourth year, I finally completed my undergraduate studies at Tygerberg in 1994. My 10 years of undergraduate studies and four years of postgraduate studies at SU were some of the best of my life. I made so many different sets of life-long friends.”

Etienne especially cherishes the memories of his mentor and bosom friend, Paul van Zyl. “He was a superb intellect and consultant physician and we happened to become very close friends even until the day of his death. Paul taught me how to question everything and how to be a caring, yet clinical doctor.”

The day that Etienne decided to become a neurologist is etched clearly in his mind: “I vividly remember the moment I fell in love with the brain and its mysteries. It was in my fourth year of medical studies when we were exposed to clinical aspects of neurology and neurosurgery. Not knowing much, I asked the head of neurosurgery about the field. He was wise enough to realise my interest was more in the working mechanisms of the brain and he recommended neurology to me. I guess it was true love from the first moment and I feel incredibly privileged to be a member of the most fascinating, intelligent, yet humble, neurology family.”

After qualifying as a neurologist, Etienne worked as consultant neurologist at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at SU and spearheaded the conceptualisation and initiation of the Ukwanda Centre for Rural Health, which gave birth to the School of Rural Health. “It was while spending time in the impoverished communities of the Western Cape that I realised the huge challenge we are facing. Poverty has locked in the human potential of the very young ones. I remember saying to friends and colleagues, if I had R10 to solve all our problems, I would put R9 into early childhood development.”

This important realisation resulted in Etienne founding AmazingBrainz in 2007, an independent non-profit organisation dedicated to the design of programmes for the brain stimulation of young, developing children – especially in disadvantaged communities. “The AmazingBrainz programme works beautifully,” says Etienne. “In the next three years, we plan the development of Amazing Communities to scale in order to reach the magical one-million-children number in South Africa. When we scale to reach a critical mass of the children in our beloved country, we will make a big dent in poverty as we start to unlock the true human potential and capacity on the marginalised community platforms.”

Etienne’s fascination with the many remarkable discoveries coming from the various brain sciences and the vast potential of this new knowledge to enhance human capacity, inspired him to found Neurozone, a neuroscience business, in 2010.

“At the heart of Neurozone is a proprietary working model of brain performance, which builds on the anatomy, biology and physiology of brain performance to identify key drivers that can be individually and collectively enhanced for resilience and high performance for thriving in life,” Etienne explains.

“The model also draws on research from neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, etc. Its impact in large organisations has been validated and is currently being used in various industries to enhance the capacity of executives, leaders and professionals in high-stress work environments by focusing on the brain/body system.

“By learning to successfully manage chronic stress in the workplace and the health issues that often accompany stress, patients report that they not only recover from their symptoms, but also experience better workplace and life performance in general,” he adds.

When it comes to human capacity enhancing, Etienne is very focused on the following three areas: leadership development, education and early childhood development. “These three areas are interrelated and intricately connected – we have to focus on all three together, and this is why Neurozone and AmazingBrainz are both so close to my heart.”

As neurologist, researcher, innovator, businessman, facilitator and keynote speaker, Etienne has enjoyed a very interesting and varied career to date. “I am just grateful to have enjoyed so many ways to develop tools with which I can live life meaningfully and purposefully. I love the brain and continue to be fascinated by it, by the daily discoveries around the globe and the discoveries we make through our own research.”

- By Birgit Ottermann -