Jason B. Carmel ’91, P'27, M.D., Ph.D., chose medicine, like many members of his family, but his life’s work took on new meaning after his identical twin brother, David, became paralyzed diving into shallow water during a trip to Mexico. Jason is now a neuroscientist who studies central nervous system injury and repair. He serves as the principal investigator of the Movement Recovery Laboratory and the executive director of the Weinberg Family Cerebral Palsy Center at Columbia University. The once highly competitive twins now collaborate to lobby for spinal cord research, and their moving story was featured on The Today Show this spring.
Carmel entered Hotchkiss in 1987 as a prep, only vaguely aware of his family’s deep roots in Lakeville. His grandfather, Albert Erdmann Jr., was Class of 1929, his uncle Albert Erdmann III was Class of 1959, and his uncle Anthony Erdmann was Class of 1964. “I did not recognize these connections at first, so maybe my choice was genetic,” joked Carmel. But now that his daughter, Sasha, is joining the Class of 2027, he finds significance in the idea of her walking the same ground his grandfather did 100 years ago. “The longer I live, the more I see and appreciate these threads of shared experience.”
He values the skills of critical thinking and writing he learned at Hotchkiss, as well as the lasting friendships of more than 30 years. His favorite faculty member was “hands down ‘Sweet Lou’ Pressman P’97. No other experience has opened a world to me more than his philosophy courses. When I think about what I want Sasha to get out of the Hotchkiss experience, I think about those classes and the personal connection I feel to Mr. Pressman.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree in human biology from Stanford University, he returned to New York City where he was raised and began medical school at Columbia University. During his second year, his brother’s devastating spinal cord injury changed Carmel’s focus in medicine to neurology and nerve regeneration research. “I did a neurosurgery rotation with my father during medical school, which was thrilling,” he said. “I do love surgery, but advancing science as a surgeon is a very tough thing to do.”
After a residency in pediatric neurology, Carmel completed further science training. He developed expertise in brain and spinal cord injury and how to use activity to shape the nervous system. “We use a combination of anatomy, physiology (brain mapping), and behavior to understand nervous system plasticity. We have used laboratory models to understand how activity, mostly in the form of electrical stimulation, can strengthen the neural pathways spared by injury and restore movement.” His team has used the therapies developed in the laboratory to apply paired brain and spinal cord stimulation in people.
The Carmel brothers work together to lobby for spinal cord research. Jason focuses on the science of neural recovery. David, who has joined the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, promotes new therapeutics and raises money for their project. “In 2010, after the financial crisis, then-Gov. David Patterson swept the funding into the general fund. Our lobbying got it back,” Jason said. “Now we are looking to expand the original $8.5 million in spinal cord injury research to $19 million to adjust for inflation and to index future funding to inflation.”
Of particular significance during these summer months, diving accidents are a major cause of spinal cord injury (SCI). Looking down the road, Carmel is hopeful that FDA-approved therapies for SCI—mostly related to spinal cord stimulation—will be available within the next few years. “The first phase 3 study of spinal cord stimulation to improve arm function in people with injury to the cervical spinal cord met its primary endpoint. In the coming years, we can expect results of therapies designed to restore blood pressure regulation, bowel and bladder function, and walking.”
Carmel is grateful for the mentors in his life, including his father, Dr. Peter Carmel, a pediatric neurosurgeon; Dr. Wise Young, his Ph.D. mentor while he studied at Rutgers University; and Dr. Jack Martin of City College, his research advisor.
He shares a word of life advice to Hotchkiss students: “Fully enjoy the Hotchkiss experience. I studied there for the love of learning, not to achieve the next milestone, and still have had some success in an unrelated field. My three kids (ages 13, 14, and 15) and their friends already talk a lot about college. I would love for Hotchkiss students to immerse themselves in the experience and not worry about the next stage so much.”