Choi’s lab studies the interaction of the immune system with the brain and the effects of that interaction on neurodevelopment, behavior and mood. For example, she is particularly interested in learning how cytokines, families of proteins that immune cells use to communicate, may act as neuromodulators that influence the development and activity of neurons in the cortex.
With this focus, Choi’s team has published several key insights that help explain how the maternal microbiome and immune activation during pregnancy can elevate the risk of offspring developing neurodevelopmental disorders.
In a 2016 paper in Science, Choi and collaborators showed in a mouse model of maternal immune activation that a particular type of T lymphocyte immune cell and its secretion of the cytokine interleukin-17a (IL-17a), mediated maternal immune activation and the development of autism-like behavioral abnormalities in offspring. The collaboration then followed with two papers in Nature in September 2017. One showed the phenomenon was further mediated by the presence of maternal intestinal bacteria that promote T cell differentiation. The other showed that the effect of IL-17a in the brain was focused in the S1DZ region of the cortex where they observed a deficit of neural inhibition. The team showed that by intervening to reduce excess neural activity, they could mitigate behavioral abnormalities associated with maternal infection.
Motivated by those findings, Choi’s long-term translational goal is to develop ways to assess the risk for individual patients, prevent the development of disease, and mitigate it post-development. Also, because her research has identified the S1DZ region of the cortex, which is hypothesized to be important for proprioception, as being particularly crucial, she is also studying the connection between proprioception and social behavior.
In earlier work Choi’s lab studied how sensory stimuli, such as smells, drive behavioral responses and internal states depending on past experience.
Choi joined the faculty of MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences in 2013 and the Picower Institute in 2019. She received her bachelor’s degree from University of California, Berkeley, and her Ph.D. from Caltech, where she studied with David Anderson. She was a postdoctoral research scientist in the laboratory of Richard Axel at Columbia University.
2018 Peter Gruss Young Investigator Award