“You just can’t give up. You’re going to face obstacles, and that’s part of what makes doing research so great. You have to be completely dedicated to it.”
— Ashley Brandebura
Several academic studies have shown that it’s possible to condition the immune system to be suppressed. With this in mind, Allegheny neuroscience professor Rodney Clark made a compelling proposition to his junior seminar: is it also possible to condition the immune system to be enhanced?
Ashley Brandebura, a neuroscience major and political science minor, took the question and ran with it. She focused on the theory that, if classical conditioning is found to enhance the immune system, it could serve as an alternative to sustained drug use for patients with immune system disorders such as HIV. As part of her senior project, Ashley is collaborating with Professor Clark to explore how environmental conditioning alters body function in rats throughout their lifecycle.
Ashley’s goal is to classically condition the rats’ immune systems to bypass negative feedback and improve their function. To test the effects of this treatment, she will count the number of T-cells in the blood serum of the rats. The rats with the most T-cells will have the best immune system function.
“It’s relevant because so many people have immune system disorders, and there’s really not a perfect treatment out there,” says Ashley, who hopes to publish her findings in an academic journal. “It could potentially be a much better medical option.”
Creating the structure of the research – and deciding how to measure results – have proven to be challenging, says Ashley. But she knows that it’s all part of a rewarding process.
“The setup may take longer than you want it to, and you may have to take alternate routes, but you just can’t give up,” she says. “You’re going to face these obstacles, and that’s part of what makes doing research so great. You have to be completely dedicated to it.”
— By Hillary Wilson ’12