2014-06-06 / Front Page

Group seeks immune system answers

Residents lead University of New England research trip to Iceland
By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer


University of New England students pose on top of Valahnukur at Þórsmörk in Iceland in mid-May. The group of 11 was conducting research on the human immune system response to anaerobic exercise in extreme conditions. Back row, from left, are Jon Lester, Dr. Lara Carlson, Sean Powers, Dr. Christopher Toth, Erin McGeggen, Jordan Drouin and Michelle Reidy. Front, Ali Stanley, Paige Driver, Kaylee LeCavalier and Courtney Farrar. (Courtesy photo) University of New England students pose on top of Valahnukur at Þórsmörk in Iceland in mid-May. The group of 11 was conducting research on the human immune system response to anaerobic exercise in extreme conditions. Back row, from left, are Jon Lester, Dr. Lara Carlson, Sean Powers, Dr. Christopher Toth, Erin McGeggen, Jordan Drouin and Michelle Reidy. Front, Ali Stanley, Paige Driver, Kaylee LeCavalier and Courtney Farrar. (Courtesy photo) BIDDEFORD — Dr. Lara Carlson first became interested in studying the effects of exercise on the immune system when she was competing in the hammer throw at the national level.

“Back in the 1990s, you started hearing about how exercise is supposed to enhance your immune system,” Carlson said. Past research on the immune system’s responses to exercise was only conducted on highintensity runners and marathon runners, and it was only conducted after they finished exercising.


Students from Dr. Lara Carlson’s environmental physiology class at the University of New England scale the Solheimajokull glacier in Iceland. Carlson and Dr. Christopher Toth took nine students to Iceland in May to conduct research on the body’s response to anaerobic exercise in a cold climate. This is the second year Carlson has taken students to Iceland to conduct experiments. 
(Courtesy photo) Students from Dr. Lara Carlson’s environmental physiology class at the University of New England scale the Solheimajokull glacier in Iceland. Carlson and Dr. Christopher Toth took nine students to Iceland in May to conduct research on the body’s response to anaerobic exercise in a cold climate. This is the second year Carlson has taken students to Iceland to conduct experiments. (Courtesy photo) She decided to conduct tests on her teammates before and after the anaerobic event, as research of this kind had never been conducted. And she found something curious: “I looked at it from a resistance exercise standpoint — intense exhaustive exercise. It seemed that our increased exercise increased our susceptibility for upper respiratory infections,” Carlson said.

Since those days of national hammer throw competitions, Carlson, who lives in Kennebunkport, now conducts research with students through the University of New England as an associate professor in the college of health professions.

In late May, Carlson took nine students from her Environmental Physiology course to Iceland to further what Carlson has been studying for more than 20 years—the examination how human organisms respond to anaerobic exercise in extreme conditions.

Dr. Christopher Toth, a podiatric surgeon at Southern Maine Health Care and MaineHealth and a clinical instructor at UNE, joined the trek as a second instructor. Toth is a Kennebunk resident.

“The goal of this research trip is to establish a correlation between immunological responses to extreme cold exposure during anaerobic activity,” Toth said before the group left in May.

Despite continuing what Carlson started in the early ‘90s, she urges students to take ownership over the research and spearhead the experiments.

“I like to let them do what they want — this is their experience,” Carlson said.

Students conducted research in Thorsmork, which is in the Husadular Valley, about 100 miles north of the capital, Reykjavik, Toth said.

The average temperature was 42.

One student took charge of overseeing and orchestrating while the remaining eight students acted as human subjects, engaging in anaerobic activities such as 20- and 40-meter sprints, 300-yard shuttle runs and other common agility drills.

“We would collect saliva and blood at baseline, immediately after (the exercise), and then two hours after recovery,” Carlson said.

The questions students were seeking to answer: “Does intense athletic exercise in cold conditions negatively impact, does it induce temporary immune suppression and therefore increase your susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infections?”

“What’s interesting is, during a recovery period staring from 90 minutes to four hours, we see that the lymphocytes decline below baseline values.

Lymphocytes are white blood cells in one’s immune system, and there are three types: T-cell, B-cell and the “natural killer cells,” Carlson said.

A decline in lymphocytes, in other words, literally means fewer white blood cells, which implies a weakened immune system.

The group also collected lactate samples and salivary immunoglobin, which is “one of the bodies first lines of defense in the immune system. It’s in your saliva,” Carlson said. “The lactate values were collected from blood samples. Lactate is a product of cellular metabolism and should be a low at rest.”

Most of the students who participated in the trip to Iceland are science majors.

Erin McGeggen, a rising junior, said, for her, “The study was pretty awesome.”

An occupational therapy major and a psychology minor, McGeggen said, “In Iceland, once we had collected the first set of data, it was just really cool to see how I felt doing the exercises. The first time I did it, I felt like I’d gone faster, and the second time, it seemed harder to do the same amount of work.”

“I loved bonding with my classmates, meeting new people, and learning. My professor (Carlson) was unbelievable. She and Dr. Toth were both amazing. They really got us involved and it was really fun. They made us get the most out of the trip,” McGeggen said.

“They both knew a lot, and they told us so much going in to it. They didn’t let us miss any opportunities. It was the sort of experience you couldn’t pass up.”

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