Ben Barres: Neurobiologist who discovered role of glial cells and campaigned for transgender rights

His research broke new ground in understanding neurodegenerative disorders, and his advocacy of equal opportunities won him admirers outside the scientific community

Matt Schudel
Tuesday 02 January 2018 15:21
‘I’ve lived in the shoes of a woman and I’ve lived in the shoes of a man. It’s caused me to reflect on the barriers women face’
‘I’ve lived in the shoes of a woman and I’ve lived in the shoes of a man. It’s caused me to reflect on the barriers women face’

Ben Barres was a neurobiologist who made groundbreaking discoveries regarding the structure and function of the brain that may have implications for understanding Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative disorders.

As a transgender man he became an outspoken opponent of gender bias in science.

The 63-year-old, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, was one of the world’s leading researchers on glial cells; the most numerous structures in the brain, whose purpose was long a complete mystery.

“Until Ben grabbed hold of this, there was very little known about what they did in the brain,” said Beth Stevens, a Harvard University professor who studied with Barres. “He made a remarkable number of discoveries and launched many avenues of research. He started a whole new field.”

There are three primary types of glial cells, or glia: microglia, oligodendrocytes and astrocytes. Most researchers concentrated on the brain’s nerve cells or neurons, which send electrical impulses.

Trained as a physician, Barres had an early interest in diseases of the brain. Other scientists had noticed that irregularly shaped glial cells were often found near damaged brain tissue, and Barres began to study whether the glia affected other structures in the brain.

“He has made one shocking, revolutionary discovery after another,” Martin Raff, a biologist at University College London who once taught Barres, told Discover magazine last year.

Barres sought to understand the normal functions of glial cells in order to understand what happened when things went awry. Among other things, the glia appeared to help neurons form synapse connections to transmit electrical signals throughout the brain. Some glial cells (oligodendrocytes) wrapped around neurons like insulation, making them work more efficiently.

Barres also discovered that some glial cells – the astrocytes, in particular – could have harmful effects. In what he described as “the most important discovery my lab has ever made” in an article published in Nature last year, he found that the glia could undergo changes or could secrete substances that could damage neurons and other cells in the brain.

In other words, glial cells might contribute to the degeneration of brain tissue that is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well as multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), glaucoma and other conditions. Barres’s work holds promise for other researchers to explore ways to treat or prevent such debilitating illnesses.

“He laid the groundwork for many other scientists,” Stevens said. “He’s really cracked open a whole new phenomenon.”

Barres began his scientific career when known as Barbara Barres. After undergoing hormone treatments and surgery, Barres became known as Ben Barres in 1997. His experience led him to become a powerful advocate for women and other marginalised people he believed were denied opportunities in a scientific world dominated by men.

“I have this perspective,” he said in 2006. “I’ve lived in the shoes of a woman and I’ve lived in the shoes of a man. It’s caused me to reflect on the barriers women face.”

In 2005, Harvard president Lawrence Summers attributed the relative dearth of female scientists to the “intrinsic aptitude” of women. The next year, Barres published a scathing essay in Nature, in which he wrote that the ad feminam statements by Summers and other scholars were “nothing more than blaming the victim”.

“The comments about women’s lesser innate abilities are all wrongful and personal attacks on my character and capabilities, as well as on my colleagues’ and students’ abilities and self-esteem,” he wrote. “I will certainly not sit around silently and endure them.”

Barres cited studies showing that boys and girls had comparable test scores in mathematics and science, but that the college science departments, tenure committees and grant-awarding panels were overwhelmingly controlled by men.

Two Harvard professors jumped into the fray, with one, political scientist Harvey Mansfield, calling Barres “a political fruitcake” and another, psychologist Steven Pinker, complaining that Barres had “reduced science to Oprah”.

“If a famous scientist or the president of a prestigious university is going to pronounce in public that women are likely to be innately inferior,” Barres wrote in his Nature essay, “would it be too much to ask that they be aware of the relevant data?”

Citing his own experience, Barres recalled that, after his transition to life as a man, he led a seminar at an academic conference. A colleague overheard another scientist say: “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”

Barres wrote that in everyday transactions as well as in academic circles, “people who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect” than when he was a woman. I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

Barres was born in West Orange, New Jersey. His father was a salesman. From the age of about four, Barres, who had a fraternal twin sister, preferred boys’ toys and clothing. For Halloween, the young Barbara Barres dressed as a football player or soldier.

“I felt like a boy,” Barres said on The Charlie Rose Show in 2015. “The brain has innate circuits that determine our gender identity. And so being transgender is not a choice that I made.”

Barres had an early interest in science and became the first member of his family to go to university. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he later wrote: “I was the only person in a large class of people of nearly all men to solve a hard math problem, only to be told by the professor that my boyfriend must have solved it for me.”

After graduating from MIT in 1976, he received a medical degree from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1979. He later enrolled in graduate school at Harvard University, working nights as a physician. He received a PhD in neurobiology – his second doctorate – in 1990.

Barres then studied at University College London before joining the Stanford faculty in 1993.

When Barres was 41 – and still known as Barbara – he developed breast cancer, a disease his mother died of at about the same age. He underwent a mastectomy.

“I said while you are there please take off the other breast,” Barres said on Charlie Rose. “Since this cancer runs in my family, he did agree to remove the other breast. And I just can’t tell you how therapeutic that was. I felt so relieved to have those breasts removed.”

Barres later read an article about a transgender man who had undergone female-to-male transition. “I realised for the first time in my life,” he said in 2015, “that there were other people like me and that I might be transgender”.

He began to take testosterone, which led to a deeper voice, a beard and male-pattern baldness. Meanwhile, with the full encouragement of his Stanford colleagues, his scientific work continued without interruption. (Barres also had prosopagnosia, sometimes called face blindness, which made him unable to recognize faces. He identified people by their voices, hairstyles or other sensory cues.)

In addition to running a laboratory with 15 to 20 researchers, Barres taught classes in the medical school and became chairman of the neurobiology department. He also developed Stanford’s master of medicine programme, combining clinical work and research, and became an informal adviser to female, gay and transgender science students.

Researchers at his laboratory were an unusually diverse group, with women often outnumbering men. His former students now run research labs at Harvard, Duke, New York University and elsewhere.

“It was the most fun and creatively dynamic environment I’ve ever worked in,” said Stevens, the Harvard scientist who was a postdoctoral fellow in Barres’s laboratory from 2004 to 2008. “He created such a tight family. These are not just scientists working at the bench. These are people who working together and helping each other.”

Barres had two surviving sisters and a brother.

After learning of his cancer diagnosis, Barres arranged for other scientists to take over his laboratory, wrote recommendation letters and gave interviews about his journey as a woman and later as a man through science.

“I feel like I have a responsibility to speak out,” he said. “Anyone who has changed sex has done probably the hardest thing they can do. It’s freeing, in a way, because it makes me more fearless about other things.”

Ben Barres, born 13 September 1954, died 27 December 2017

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