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The Innovators In Science Award Honorees Are Breaking New Ground In Neuroscience: Ben Barres

Dr. Barres inspired many with his continued efforts, in the face of his own battle with pancreatic cancer.

Albert Einstein reportedly once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Though the 2017 honorees of the Innovators in Science Award have plenty of countable achievements, their stories reveal a common thread — creative approaches to their work and the development of disruptive tools that transformed scientific understanding in their discipline.

Uncovering a New Role for Glia Cells: Shaping the Neural Communication Network

Ben Barres

Before Ben Barres, MD, PhD, began studying glia — cells that safeguard and anchor neurons — they were thought to play a relatively minor role in the nervous system. But Barres’ work revealed that glial cells, which far outnumber neurons, serve a more important function.

“Ben pioneered the idea that glia play a central role in sculpting the wiring diagram of our brain and are integral for maintaining circuit function throughout our lives,” said Thomas Clandinin, PhD, and professor of neurobiology at Stanford in a university press release. Clandinin was a colleague of Barres, who passed away in December 2017.

Dr. Barres inspired many with his continued efforts, in the face of his own battle with pancreatic cancer, to advance therapies for neurodegenerative disease. A full summary of his life and accomplishments can be found in his obituary.

Barres, a Senior Scientist Finalist and former Chair of Neurobiology at Stanford, began his career as a clinical neurologist, but became disillusioned by the medical field’s poor understanding of neural degeneration. While reviewing pathology slides, he noticed that degenerating brain tissue was often surrounded by a high density of unusually shaped glial cells.

He pursued a PhD and eventually characterized three types of glial cells, revealing how they shape electrical signal transmission. He shared the tools and reagents for cloning these cells, sparking widespread interest in glial function.

Barres’ most recent work showed that rogue glial cells drive neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, a finding he described as “the most important discovery my lab has ever made.”

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Academy Staff
This article was written by a member of the Academy staff.