Nerve Center: Neuroscience researcher brings unique talents, perspective

Vital Signs » Fall 2014
photo of debra ann mayes

A massive stroke at age 28 gives neuroscientist Debra Ann Mayes unique insight into recovering from nerve damage

When she was seven years old, Debra Ann Mayes found a daddy longlegs with a couple of legs missing. She kept it alive in the backyard of her home in the Ohio River town of Jeffersonville, Indiana, feeding it flies. When the insect’s legs grew back, she was amazed.

A few years later, one of Mayes’ cousins was in shop class and accidentally cut off her finger. Surgeons in Louisville were able to sew it back together, restoring feeling and movement.

“Not too long after that, I started hearing about spinal cord patients and wondered why a damaged spinal cord couldn’t grow back,” said Mayes, an assistant professor of neuroscience, cell biology and physiology.

“That was a huge question for me. Everybody told me it was impossible.”

Today, the researcher at the Wright State University and Premier Health Neuroscience Institute is working on making the impossible possible.

Mayes approaches science by identifying and explaining fundamental cellular patterns or paradoxes that have not been noticed or have been inadequately addressed by current theory or paradigms. Her work bridges fields in a way that generates unique insights across different disciplines.

Mayes has been told that she is the face of the future, that she can push boundaries and develop and integrate knowledge and technologies in ways previously overlooked.

“However, I have also been told that integrating cellular and molecular signaling using a systems approach is impossible— being too broad,” she said. “I will prove these naysayers wrong.”

Mayes’ current project is to find out how to prevent and repair nerve damage from a disease that can cause behavior and developmental problems in children. But her project to-do list includes research into the neurology of the brain and the circulatory, skeletal, and metabolic systems.

“Everybody here is doing good hard-core science, and everybody cares about what they’re doing,” said Mayes, who arrived at Wright State in August 2013. “To be able to work in this environment allows you to flourish. There are so many projects that I want to do.”

Mayes obtained her bachelor’s degree with honors in psychology from Indiana University, carrying a heavy load of neuroscience courses.

“I realized that I loved neuroscience. I liked the cognitive part, but I really liked the molecular side of it,” she said. “Why does that behavior happen, and how can you modulate things?”

She began working on her Ph.D. at the University of Arkansas, where she helped identify a molecule that advanced knowledge about the growth of nerves in the spinal cord.

It’s a stroke. It was facinating

Then it happened. The 28-year-old researcher suffered a massive stroke, losing all sensation and motor movement on the left side of her body. She was rushed to the emergency room.

“I told the neurologist, ‘I’m having a stroke. These are my symptoms.’ I wasn’t all upset about it,” Mayes recalled.

‘He said, ‘Why aren’t you hysterical?’

“I said, ‘It’s a stroke.’ It was fascinating.”

For a neuroscientist working on regeneration, having a stroke gave Mayes a window view from the inside out. During her rehabilitation, she was able to tap into the knowledge and experience of fellow patients with spinal cord injuries and also came to realize the key role physical therapy plays in recovering from nerve damage.

“It brought up things I hadn’t considered,” she said. “It added layers to my knowledge I would not have gotten.”

It took Mayes—who has since regained virtually all of her sensation and motor skills—about two months to relearn how to walk.

“I would just continue walking until my muscles gave out,” she said. “Even if you can get nerves to regenerate, the muscles still need physical therapy to function.”

She returned to her lab at Arkansas and obtained her Ph.D. in neuroscience and developmental biology, doing cancer research that required learning genetics and cancer biology and biochemistry. Then she did postdoctoral work at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center before coming to Wright State.

“While many suggested I leave science after the stroke,” Mayes said, “I have never given up the attitude that has allowed me to fully recover, persevere, and will enable me to sustain a productive, impactful scientific career.”

American Society for Neuochemistry-Neuro Award

Last year, Mayes was chosen as the American Society for Neuochemistry-Neuro Award winner from among 30,000 attendees in Cancun, Mexico. She has also helped initiate a collaborative neural tumor tissue bank with neurosurgeons at Premier Health and Dayton Children’s Hospital.

Mayes is currently investigating neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), a genetic disease that produces tumors in the nerve cells of children. NF1 can lead to autism, hyperactivity, learning and memory difficulties, as well as heart and bone issues. She has discovered that antioxidants hold promise for treating the disease.

“We’re not there yet,” she said. “There’s a lot to do just on the tumor aspect.”

Mayes says her current work has the potential to identify and explain commonalities between all neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric diseases. That will eventually enable her to study and develop new therapeutic tools to combat these diseases.

The lab in which Mayes works is currently focusing upon the translational potential of diet, exercise, and antioxidant therapies to control metabolism-regulated cellular junctions. Because all antioxidants affect not only metabolism but also blood platelet aggregation and immunology, the lab plans to eventually branch out into all three fields to examine the totality of these basic biology questions using a systems approach.

“It would be difficult to successfully complete all of the work I plan at any other institution,” Mayes said. “We have phenomenal scientists here in Dayton.”

Because of her wide and varied experience, Mayes brings a unique expertise to the study of neurological therapy and regeneration.

“It’s one big puzzle. You have to understand each piece at a time,” she said. “As a group, we’re going to help each other put it all together.”

— Jim Hannah

Last edited on 09/22/2015.