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Jamaican born Scientist discovers new way to repair damaged nerves

Prof. Dr. Patrice Smith works in her Carleton University laboratory. BLAIR GABLE/© 2009, BLAIR GABLE PHOTOGRAPHY

Who would have thought that a little girl from Darliston in Westmoreland would turn out to be a First World scientist who  discovered a new way to repair damaged nerves? – Contributed

After she arrived in Canada from Jamaica, 18-year-old Patrice Smith repeated her final year of high school in hopes of winning a university scholarship.

It was a humble beginning to a career in neuroscience that led to the University of Ottawa and Harvard University, and the discovery, announced Thursday, of a new way to coax damaged nerves to repair themselves.

Her experiments, which build on the growing understanding of how a baby’s brain is different from that of an adult, could lead to novel therapies for brain or spinal cord injuries.

Until about the age of two, the neurons in the human brain are still growing, stretching out long arms known as axons to form connections and build networks and circuits. After that, experience and learning shape those connections largely through pruning, said Dr. Smith, now 32 and running her own lab at Carleton University. Superfluous connections are trimmed; those used more frequently are strengthened in a variety of ways that don’t involve the growth of axons.

This suggests that a mechanism must kick in during the toddler years to prevent neurons from growing and forming new connections, said Dr. Smith, who moved back to Canada in 2008 after doing post-doctoral work at Harvard University.

“There are signals from the brain saying, ‘Okay, the connections are formed, there is no need for you to grow.’ “

Dr. Smith suspects this could be what prevents injured neurons in the brains and spinal cords of adults from repairing themselves.

Now, she and colleagues at Harvard have a found a molecule that appears to put the brakes on neuron growth in adult mice.

It is called SOCS3. When the scientists blocked it in adult mice with crushed optic nerves, the damaged neurons began to sprout.

Some of the new growth reached as far as the brain. The next step is to see if this is enough to restore the vision of the blind mice, said Dr. Smith, who reported her findings Thursday in the journal Neuron.

Baby mice with the same injury to the optic nerve repair the damage without intervention. The immune system sends signals to start the healing process, and there is a quick response.

But it is different in adults.

“We are beginning to uncover that adults are not responsive to the immune signals that are turned on after we are injured,” she said. “We are actively suppressing our ability to respond to these immune signals.”

The work it is an important advance toward understanding why axons of adult nerve cells don’t regenerate, said William Snider, a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina.

He wrote an article assessing the impact of Dr. Smith’s findings for Neuron. He said that new approaches being developed by Dr. Smith and other scientists must be tested in primates.

Dr. Smith said she is thrilled to be back in Canada trying to answer a question that first seized her when she was doing a doctorate at the University of Ottawa on diseases of the aging brain like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Why is it that the young brain is so much more resilient? Why is it that as adults we have such a hard time repairing ourselves, where as for kids it is so much easier?”

Understanding those differences could lead to new treatments, she said.

She finished her PhD at the University of Ottawa, winning scholarships and working part-time at lab jobs to pay her way. She went to Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow to pursue her interest in the differences between young and old brains.

Dr. Smith said the ideal treatment will probably involve delivering drugs to an injured area of the brain or spinal cord.

Sometimes, with the right kind of therapy, people can recover at least in a limited way from a brain injury if neurons that haven’t been damaged can provide an alternate route for signals, Dr. Smith said. She wants to get the damaged cells to repair themselves. She wants to get the damaged cells to repair themselves.

“I am not from a background of privilege,” she said. “But if you want to do something, you can do it.”

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27 responses to “Jamaican born Scientist discovers new way to repair damaged nerves”

  1. Carol b says:

    Great work!! Continue on that path

  2. Mary Dunkerly says:

    I am a Canadian Resident that had Spinal Surgery in 2014 and have ended up with constant pain in both thighs and the three last toes on my left foot with very little feeling. My balance is also very unstable, and I can only walk about one block with a cane. Do you have any suggestions to help me?

  3. Marie Wilson says:

    This is great news for The Aging. Especially now that People are living a longer, so the quality of life needs to be to be enhanced so that they can be functional even in they get order days.
    Looking forward to see2 her being nominated One Day for a Nobel Prize, AS she continues with her amazing Research.
    Congrats another Jamaican doing it well. Ikkle but tallawah.

  4. Pattie Cearley says:

    I was nicked during surgery in my femor nerve – I am interested

  5. Blossom Bailey says:

    As a fellow jamaican myself I’m very proud of you and i know if there is a cure you will find it, God bless you.

  6. Green Baltimore says:

    Once again, Jamaica and Jamaicans are impacting the world in a positive way.

  7. Dr. Donna-Marie Darlington-Dawes says:

    Amazing discovery . May God continue to give Dr Patrice Smith, the wisdom to do great things ! Also, I encourage you to give back to young aspiring scholars who long to have a role model like you . Cheers from a fellow Caribbean lady!

  8. Wilbert W. Buchanan II says:

    Amazing work Dr. Patrice Smith. I am proud of you. Keep soaring in your field, the world needs you.

  9. Mutti says:

    How great it is that our little God bless island of Jamaica ;continue to shock the world as we continue making contribution that will someday change the world forever . The greatest impact is yet to come 🙏🏾😎as time always reveal all the untold stories …….congratulations

  10. Sabu/Alex says:

    Hoorah for the young neuroscientist and Jamaica.Wish her well.The human race deserves more like her.

  11. Sean says:

    Is there a blog, site or newsletter I can follow to keep updated on her work?

  12. Jessie Campbell says:

    Wow, that’s really amazing, Congratulations Dr Patrice Smith, I always knew that we have very good and well educated people from Jamaica, as a fellow Jamaican I so much adore you, keep up the good work and may God continue to bless you in your future endeavors.

  13. Yusuf Muhammad says:

    Congrats my QUEEN!! I had a 3 level cervical fusion and since suffer with lost of strength and muscle in both hands. The pain is sometimes unbearable. CAN YOU HELP ME?

  14. Yvonnr says:


  15. Viv says:

    This is amazing. I wish Dr. Patrice Smith much success in her lifetime of studies. So proud of her achievements.

  16. Karen walters says:

    My sister had spinal injury 3 years ago..c6 and c7…is there any help for her,will be willing to be in a clinical trial

  17. Excellence properly channeled!

  18. Martin Blaser says:

    As a retired physiotherapist, absolutely wonderful news! Keep up on your challenging work! Innovative, lateral thinking with evidence based evaluation is paramount!

    • smcdja says:

      Please share this story with your friends. We need to let our people know that nothing is beyond us, no matter where we are from.

  19. A C. says:

    We have been overlooked by some who thinks the Caribbean only have sun and nice beaches to offer. U like others keep proving them wrong. U make us all proud.

    • smcdja says:

      Please share this story with your friends. We need to let our people know that nothing is beyond us, no matter where we are from.

  20. Albert says:

    Congrsts 🎉Dr Smith, we’re so proud. Your passion will benefit mankind in the future, so continue to research the possibilities in Neuro Science to solve the myrid of illnesses within that area. Guess what? My grandfather was born in your home town of Darliston, 1891.

  21. Conrod says:

    Jamaican brainiac. You made all of Jamaica proud, those at home and in the diaspora. This is a massive accomplishment and I have a feeling that you have only scratched the surface Dr. Smith.

    A very proud Jamaican.

    • smcdja says:

      Please share this story with your friends. We need to let our people know that nothing is beyond us, no matter where we are from.

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