Ben Barres

Glial cells are more than the central nervous system’s “glue”

contributed by Ash Zemenick @mtn_ash & Marjorie Weber @weber_mg


Animals, Cell types, Cellular biology, Experimental, Fundamental research, Glia, Historical figure, Lab, LGBTQIA+, Medicine, Neurobiology, Physiology, Social justice, Societal Relevance, Transgender


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Other Resources

Ben A. Barres. 2008. The Mystery and Magic of Glia: A Perspective on Their Roles in Health and Disease. Neuron 60(3): 430-440 link

Ben A. Barres. 2017. The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist. MIT Press link

Martin Raff. 2018. Ben Barres (1954-2017). Science 359(6363): 280  link

Presentation Notes

Researcher’s Background

Ben Barres was an neurobiologist that served as the chair of the Neurobiology Department at Stanford University School of Medicine. He studied neurons, glial cells, and their interactions. He was an outstandingly prolific scientist, a dedicated mentor, and a fierce advocate for women and marginalized people in STEM. He was the first openly transgender person to be admitted to the National Academies of Science.

Biography in brief

This is a modified excerpt of an article written about Ben Barres in Science Magazine by Martin Raff, his postdoctoral mentor. Find the article here or read more about the the life, values, and achievements of Ben from his own perspective from his book, the Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, that he finished shortly before he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2017.

“Barres was born and raised in West Orange, New Jersey, with the given name Barbara. Neither of his parents went to university, and they and their three other children showed no interest in science, whereas Barres wanted to be a scientist by age 5.

As a scholarship undergraduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he took a brain science course that sparked his interest in neuroscience. After receiving a medical degree at Dartmouth Medical School, he completed a neurology residency at the Cornell Cooperating Hospitals in New York. Having decided to become a neuroscientist, he entered the neuroscience Ph.D. Program at Harvard Medical School.” 

After finishing his PhD, “Barres next spent 3 years as a postdoc in my lab at University College London, where he studied the early development of oligodendrocytes.” He started “his own lab at Stanford University at age 39, where Barres remained for the rest of his career, attracting many outstanding students and postdocs and transitioning to Ben after 4 years. The Barres lab made a seemingly endless series of astonishing discoveries about how glial cells function in the normal and diseased rodent and human brain.”

Axes of identity & underrepresentation

After a lifetime of struggling with his gender identity, Ben Barres finally decided to transition from female to male in his forties. It was so terrifying to come to this decision that he was ultimately deciding between taking his life and transitioning publicly. After coming out and transitioning, he finally became aware of how differently men and women are treated in science and society. As an undergraduate at MIT, Ben (then perceived as a woman) solved a difficult math problem that stumped many male classmates, only to be told by a professor: “Your boyfriend must have solved it for you.” After he transitioned and was perceived as a man, he overheard a colleague say that his research is “much better than his sister’s”. In general, once he was perceived as a man, he found that he was interrupted less and treated with more respect by colleagues. You can read more about his unique experience of having navigated life and science perceived as a woman and man in his autobiography or here

Research Overview

Take home message of research

Ben Barres discovered that glial cells impact synapse formation and elimination, and play important roles in human health and disease. Glial cells are the most abundant type of cells in the nervous system (brain and spinal cord), and surround neurons. Because glia do not produce electrical signals like neurons, they were considered to solely function as structural components or “glue” of the nervous system and were therefore disregarded as unimportant in determining the function of the nervous system — until Ben Barres began to research them.

Study system

This figure shows “protoplasmic astrocytes in the developing cerebral cortex”. Astrocytes are the dominant type of glial cells found in the brain.

Key Research Points

Key figure

The steps by which synapsis form, highlighting the role of astrocytes (the dominant type of glial cell in the brain) from Figure 1 in Barres 2008. 

  1. Formation: Astrocytes secrete proteins called thrombospondins (TSP) that induce neurons to form synapses. 
  2. Presynaptic function: of these synapses is strongly enhanced by astrocyte-secreted cholesterol. 
  3. Postsynaptic function of synapses, determined by the level of synaptic AMPA glutamate receptors, is strongly enhanced by an as yet unidentified protein secreted by astrocytes. 
  4. Elimination: Finally, astrocytes also help to control synapse elimination by secreting an unidentified signal that induces neurons (and possibly also microglia) to express and secrete C1q, which becomes synaptically localized and leads to activation of the classical complement cascade.

Societal Relevance

Ben is one of the few role models for transgender and gender nonconforming people who see few positive representations of themselves or their shared identity in the media, leadership positions, or science. His research progressed the field of neuroscience in many ways, which has impacted our understanding of the human brain. This has lead to discoveries and developments in treating many neural diseases including Alzheimer’s. 

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