Littman’s laboratory studies the molecular mechanisms involved in the specification of distinct T lymphocyte lineages during development in the thymus and in response to microbial challenges in peripheral tissues. Elucidation of these mechanisms will help scientists understand how normal protective immune responses differ from pathogenic ones that result in inflammation and autoimmune disease. A major goal is to determine how intestinal commensal bacteria can trigger systemic T cell-mediated autoimmune diseases, and Littman and his team are investigating the roles of diverse myeloid cell types, innate lymphoid cells, enteric neurons, and cytokines in the polarization of the multiple types of T cells. In addition, a distinct area of interest for the laboratory is the elucidation of mechanisms by which the human immunodeficiency virus is transmitted and damages the immune system.
As an Innovation Fund investigator, Littman’s lab is teaming with the lab of Robert C. Froemke, Ph.D., to explore new topics at the interface between neuroscience and immunology and will use techniques from one system to investigate the other. The pair will use novel tools to probe how the neuronal sensing of gut microbes and intestinal functions alters an animal’s behavior—work that could help map how information is relayed from the gut to the nervous system, and promote recovery from an illness.