Pride in Science: Ben Barres, Astrocytes, and Activism

Here at Everyday Einstein, we’ll honor Pride Month by highlighting the incredibly important work from just one scientist and member of the LGBT community: Ben Barres.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
3-minute read
Episode #242

In remembrance of the Stonewall riots in Manhattan in 1969, June is celebrated as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month around the globe. Here at Everyday Einstein, we’ll honor Pride Month by highlighting the incredibly important work from just one scientist and member of the LGBT community.

The renowned neurobiologist Ben Barres was an undergraduate at MIT, attended Dartmouth Medical School, and earned a PhD from Harvard. He once served as Chief Resident in neurology at Cornell University and has been the Chairman of Neuroscience at Stanford for the past nine years. Now that’s a resume. Barres also became the first openly transgender scientist in the US National Academy of Sciences in 2013.

Barres made his transition at the age of 40 and so has the rare perspective of having experienced the life of a research scientist as both a woman and a man. He has noted that he is often treated with more respect as a male scientist than he was as a female scientist and is now an outspoken advocate for making the study of science a more welcoming place for minorities of all backgrounds.

As a woman, Barres was discouraged from applying to study biology at MIT. When he solved a difficult math problem that none of the male students could solve, he was accused of allowing his boyfriend to do his homework for him.  After his transition, he once overheard a fellow scientist claim that his work was “much better than his sister’s” in reference to his earlier work as a woman.

What Are Astrocytes?

Ben Barres’ scientific work also highlights why scientific research and innovation requires diverse perspectives. For decades, neuroscience, the study of the brain and nervous system, focused on neurons, the electrically excitable cells that transmit and process information in our brains through electrical and chemical signals. However, about half of the cells in our brain aren’t neurons at all but glia, connective tissue between neurons or, in other words, “brain glue”.

Between 20-40% of glia are a type of cell called astrocytes, so named because they resemble a five-pointed star. They aren’t electrically excited like neurons and so were initially considered relatively unimportant. But a single astrocyte can touch thousands of neurons. And when scientists studied Einstein’s brain, they found the only extraordinary thing about it was a larger than average number of astrocytes.

Barres and his collaborators decided to take a different approach and focused their work on the study of astrocytes and other glia rather than neurons. In 1997, Barres, along with researcher Rob Wechsler-Reya, published a study in the journal of Current Biology that showed the interactions between neurons and glial cells affected the structure and function of the retina and optic nerve in rats. In other words, glia are critical for neurons to grow properly and form strong connections with other neurons.

This work inspired a new field of research into astrocytes and other glial cells: are there different types? What are their functions? Do those functions ever change? What are the differences between active versus inactive astrocytes? Barres and his collaborators have shown that some types of astrocyte induce synapse formation and function while others “mediate synapse elimination”. In other words, they help synapses, the junction between neurons form but they also eat them.

Researchers now know that astrocytes feed neurons by bringing in nutrients from blood vessels, they help to balance the ion content in the brain, and they help with repairs after injuries to the brain and the rest of the central nervous system. Further studies of astrocytes could help scientists better understand the synapse loss associated with Alzheimer patients. For more on astrocytes and some helpful diagrams, check out Neurotransmissions on YouTube with host Allie Astrocyte.  

Barres recently gave a standing-room-only lecture at MIT’s Broad Institute which can be viewed online and highlights his recent work to sustain astrocyte cells in solution so that they can be more efficiently studied. Sadly, he warns that he may not have many lectures in his future due to his ongoing fight with pancreatic cancer.

In a response to a former Harvard president who suggested women are simply not as good at science as men are, Barres wrote in an opinion piece for the journal Nature, “I am suspicious when those who are at an advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group of people is innately less able.” His work and his activism are both incredibly important examples of how innovation best thrives with fresh and diverse perspectives.  

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com

Image courtesy of shutterstock.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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