Hi, my name is Victoria Kinsley and I am just starting my third year as a PhD student in Neurosciences here at the University of Manchester. I finished my Masters in Immunology and Immunogenetics in 2012 and started my PhD in 2013. My PhD involves studying the nervous system in the gut and investigating a possible link between nerves and the immune response. Hopefully this will help us to better understand how and why diseases of the digestive system occur and why some people are more susceptible than others.
The gut, or gastro-intestinal tract, is responsible for taking nutrients from food, and also for making sure any bugs we inadvertently digest are recognised by our immune system and eliminated quickly. However, we all have naturally occurring (commensal) bacteria in there too that we need to tolerate in order to be healthy.
The gut is full of nerves, so many in fact that it is known as the ‘mini-brain’. It is controlled by these nerves along with input from the brain; however the mini brain is capable of working alone. Nerves are important to keep the gut moving and push through the contents, but it appears they may have another role as well; we know that there is a cross talk between this ‘mini-brain’ and the immune system to maintain a healthy gut environment, but this is not yet fully understood. Some receptors and soluble factors are shared by both nerves and immune cells and these may work together to keep the gut healthy, but we don’t know yet how this impacts the progression of disease and recovery from illness. Many people suffer from diseases and disorders of the gastro-intestinal tract and some, such as Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis, have no known cure. These patients seem to have slightly different gut nerves than those who are unaffected, and it may be that the nervous system in the gut plays an important role in driving the disease. The gut is also affected in conditions such as diabetes, and changes in gut commensal bacteria have been linked with autism and depression, but further research is needed.
My research aims to look at the nerves in the gut and investigate what is happening during and after infection to see if there is a long term impact on the nerve ‘maps’ that may then affect the way our guts respond to future infection or disease. During the course of ordinary life our gastro intestinal tract works hard; we all encounter the odd bout of gut infection. Might this change our gut nerves and then affect our immune responses in the future? Might this be why some people get chronic gut disease and some people don’t? If we can understand the nervous system of the gut a little better we may get closer to being able to answer some of these important questions, and we may be able to help people suffering from gut disease.
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