When most students think about vitamin D deficiency, they think about spending more time in the sun or drinking more orange juice. But Emily Witt (Human Biology, ’15) knows that vitamin D plays a role in much more. Emily has spent much of her time at Stanford researching the degenerative neurological disease multiple sclerosis and its relationship to the immune system. Immunology is not the first thing most people, including most scientists, think of when they think of neuroscience research and medical advancements, but Emily’s research is one piece of a fascinating and important body of work that opens a window into how the brain interacts with the immune system. A better understanding of neuroimmunology may provide answers to some of the biggest problems in neuroscience today, including Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and multiple sclerosis.
Emily’s own contributions to the intersection of the brain and the immune system began in the summer of 2014, when she used a UAR grant to conduct her own research in the Steinman Lab at Stanford. Using very unique samples from Johns Hopkins, Emily tested and observed changes in the gene expression of samples that were treated with vitamin D. When a person develops multiple sclerosis, their neurons demyelinate, which means that the myelin sheath surrounding the nerves deteriorate, causing cell signaling throughout the brain to slow down and stop. A specific immune cell controls this demyelination process, and scientists theorize that vitamin D may affect that immune cell. Emily’s research confirmed previous studies that showed that vitamin D plays an important role in the demyelination of neurons and is now the basis for others’ research on specific genetic testing in mice. Emily is in the process of publishing her paper as she completes a master’s program in neuroscience at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
Besides her impressive array of accomplishments related to multiple sclerosis and neuroscience, Emily finds that doing independent research helped make her a better thinker overall. After exploring various types of research, from wet labs to MRI work to qualitative research, she realized that neuroscience research in immunology is what she wants to do long term. The resources in the Human Biology department, the UAR office, and the collaborative nature of many labs on campus not only provided guidance to Emily as she formulated her own research plan and applied for funding, but also inspired her to continue her line of research.