Dr. Jacqueline Pettersen. Sonya Kruger photo Dr. Jacqueline Pettersen. Sonya Kruger photo

UNBC doctor wins international prize for vitamin D research

Dr. Jacqueline Pettersen won for her medical research into the effects of vitamin D on visual memory

A doctor with the Northern Medical Program at University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George recently received the Fritz Wörwag Research Prize for her research into the impacts of vitamin D on mental cognition.

Dr. Jacqueline Pettersen, a neurologist, received the award as well as €8,000 in prize money (approximately $12,000 CAD) in Berlin on May 9. Pettersen was flown to Berlin for the ceremony, where she presented her paper. “It was a huge honour. A pretty amazing feeling.”

The award, which has been given out nine times in the last 30 years, was started in 1988 by family-owned German pharmaceutical company Wörwag Pharma. This year, scientists who have made a significant scientific contribution regarding “biofactors” (multi-nutrients) and neuroprotection were eligible to apply for the prize. The winners were determined by an independent jury.

In an email, Kerstin Imbery-Will, the public relations officer for the prize, said the jury found Pettersen’s study highlights a “very important” new understanding of vitamin D, which Pettersen discovered can help improve visual memory, particularly when taking the “increasing problem of dementia” into consideration.

Pettersen’s research found that individuals who took 4,000 international units of vitamin D (the equivalent of four regular-size tablets from a bottle sold at your local drug store) per day for 18 weeks had improved visual memory. The study tested their memory by presenting participants with a series of complex line patterns to memorize, before showing them the patterns a second time, this time side by side with a pattern that the participant hadn’t seen before. The participant had to identify which pattern they had already seen.

Pettersen initially found out she’d won the award via email.

“I was in shock, I couldn’t speak at first,” she laughs. “I went to tell my husband and the words wouldn’t come out.”

She first started to research vitamin D insufficiency as a product of her geography. It’s a common problem, she says, affecting more than a billion people worldwide, but it‘s particularly common in the north, where she lives.

“Since I’m in the north,” she says, “I thought it was a good question to look at in more detail.”

So why is vitamin D insufficiency so common in the north? Pettersen says the biggest reason is the lack of sunshine during the winter months.

“Sunshine really is the best source of vitamin D,” she says.

“We can’t really get what we need from our food. So unless you’re supplementing that in the winter, in the north you’re invariably vitamin D insufficient.”

Now, Pettersen is continuing her research into vitamin D insufficiency. She’s looking into genetics, and how a person’s genes can influence their vitamin D levels as well as their cognitive responses to the vitamin.

As for the prize money, Pettersen says she still hasn’t cashed it. “I’m not sure what to do with it yet,” she laughs.

“It’s fun to think about though.”

UNBC was recently ranked among the top 250 elite young universities in the world for the first time, according to a list published by Times Higher Education. The list ranks the best universities age 50 years or younger. UNBC was ranked in a group from 151 to 200.

UNBC is the only university in British Columbia included in the rankings and one of only four Canadian universities on the list. It was established in 1990, and recently celebrated its 25th convocation. UNBC partnered with the College of New Caledonia in Quesnel in 1997 and began offering programs here in 1999.

“Since its inception less than three decades ago, UNBC has strengthened its roots in Northern British Columbia and also demonstrated its global impact through award-winning teaching, groundbreaking research and exceptional service,” says UNBC Board of Governors Chair Tracey Wolsey.

“This recognition from Times Higher Education underscores the fact UNBC is a destination University committed to preparing the next generation of leaders while influencing our world today.”

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