Vitamin D, invariant natural killer T-cells and experimental autoimmune disease

Proc Nutr Soc. 2012 Feb;71(1):62-6. doi: 10.1017/S0029665111003193.


Vitamin D is an important regulator of the immune system in general and multiple sclerosis in particular. Experimentally (i), invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells have been shown to be important suppressors of autoimmune diseases such as experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE; an animal model of multiple sclerosis). Conversely, in experimental allergic asthma iNKT cells are required for disease induction and are therefore pathogenic. The active form of vitamin D (calcitriol) suppresses EAE. The development of EAE symptoms is accelerated in vitamin D deficiency. Interestingly experimental asthma is less severe in vitamin D deficiency although there is no effect of calcitriol on disease severity. The data suggest that an important target of vitamin D in EAE and asthma are the iNKT cells. Vitamin D and/or vitamin D receptor deficiency results in the impaired development of iNKT cells. Vitamin D is critical very early during development of the immune system. Low levels of vitamin D in utero resulted in significantly reduced numbers of iNKT cells that failed to recover when calcitriol was used to supplement neonatal or adult mice. The data suggest that one of the consequences of early vitamin D deficiency is a reduction in the numbers of iNKT cells that develop. The iNKT cells are required for the beneficial effects of calcitriol in EAE. The important role of vitamin D on iNKT cells could impact the development of human immune-mediated diseases including multiple sclerosis and asthma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Asthma / blood
  • Asthma / immunology*
  • Autoimmune Diseases / blood
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology*
  • Calcitriol / blood
  • Calcitriol / immunology
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Encephalomyelitis, Autoimmune, Experimental / blood
  • Encephalomyelitis, Autoimmune, Experimental / immunology
  • Humans
  • Killer Cells, Natural / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Multiple Sclerosis / blood
  • Multiple Sclerosis / immunology*
  • Receptors, Calcitriol / metabolism
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Vitamin D / blood
  • Vitamin D / immunology*
  • Vitamin D Deficiency / blood
  • Vitamin D Deficiency / complications
  • Vitamin D Deficiency / immunology*


  • Receptors, Calcitriol
  • Vitamin D
  • Calcitriol