Research examines vitamin D deficient athletes

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Low vitamin D levels have been associated with things like depression and lower mental cognition. Alaskans are particularly affected by this issue, given the lack of direct sunlight in winter months, and athletes on campus may be at particular risk. A previous study done at University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) has shown student-athletes have lower vitamin D levels than other students. This is one of the areas of research that doctorate student Scott Jerome has been working on in his lab.

Jerome and fellow doctorate student Lisa Smith, along with undergraduate students from their labs, will be presenting at the One Health Seminar on Nov. 21 from 3 to 4 p.m. in the Murie Auditorium. Smith and Jerome will be spending the hour giving separate presentations.

“This work is really interesting for anyone who lives in the circumpolar north,” Jerome said. “We know that in the far north we’re not producing as much vitamin D from the sun as our friends closer to the Equator. I think we should be concerned about our vitamin D levels for our overall health.”

The undergraduates working with Jerome are Hanna Short and Rebecca Gever, who participated in Biomedical Learning and Student Training’s (BLaST) Undergrad Research Experiences program. Jerome’s part of the lecture will be about how over–training affects athletes, in particular endurance athletes like cross-country skiers. Specifically, researchers looked at the vitamin D levels and manual dexterity skills of Fairbanks skiers during the skiing season and out of it. “Not much is known about [overtraining syndrome] because it’s very difficult to diagnose, but it can be very debilitating for an athlete,” Jerome said.

They wanted to find out if vitamin D levels would be lower and if the skiers had lower dexterity skills during the winter ski season. Jerome tested the athlete’s dexterity by seeing how many pegs they could put into a board in 60 seconds with their dominant and nondominant hands. This may have implications for the mental cognition of the athletes as well, since manual dexterity and mental cognition have shown a correlation. If one is lower, then the other might be lower as well, according to Jerome.

Jerome’s research is adding on to similar research that was done in the past which found that athletes in Fairbanks were consuming more vitamin D than the average student, however, the athletes still had less vitamin D in their blood.

In the future, Jerome’s lab is looking at using sled dogs as models for human endurance athletes. Sled dogs are much easier to work with logistically. “It’s also a lot easier, to some degree, to get 40 subjects at one place and one time if they’re all in a kennel as opposed to trying to round up 40 humans,” Jerome said.

For the other half of the seminar, Smith will be talking about the research that she is doing with BLaST Scholars Katrina Watson and Gabriel Cartagena.

Their research is about the protein that creates HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and how in some people it affects their mental cognition, similar to other illnesses like Alzheimer’s. The neurons, or brain cells, affected become less connected to their neighbors and they die out, according to Smith. “Better understanding the paths of neurodegeneration is beneficial to almost everybody because it’s something that eventually we are confronted,” Smith said.

In the future, Smith and her lab will also be looking at rat neurons located in the hippocampus of the brain and the formation of “rods,” which are misformed proteins that lead to the development of Alzheimer’s. “I think this idea of HIV-associated neurodegeneration is one that not a lot of people are familiar with,” Smith said.

Both Smith and Jerome’s research are funded by the Biomedical Learning and Student Training program.

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Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute Of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Numbers UL1GM118991, TL4GM118992, or RL5GM118990. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.