Ben Barres, the Stanford neuroscientist who is a member of the Reeve Foundation International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord
, was featured recently in a meet-the-researcher piece by BrainFacts
, a science information initiative of The Kavli Foundation, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, and the Society for Neuroscience. The interview is a good basic set-up on Barres' work with neural support cells called glia; to tell you the truth, though, it isn’t very deep. I recommend this article, from the Reeve publication Progress in Research
for a bit more pith.
The BrainFacts piece did, however, introduce a significant aspect of Dr. Barres life and work; he went to MIT, Dartmouth Medical School and got a Ph.D. from Harvard, and became a scientist at Stanford as Barbara Barres. This is interesting, but let me make three points: a) Barres is open and comfortable about his transgender life being public knowledge; and b) it has nothing to do with his science and therefore, I wouldn’t have mentioned it if BrainFacts had not; and c) Barres personifies the gender politics of science and has a key role in an ongoing debate on why women are underrepresented the field. Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggested in 2005 that "intrinsic aptitude" may explain why tenured female scientists are scarce at Harvard. Barres strongly countered, in the Journal Nature
-- relating both the perspective of a woman and a man. Says Barres: Women don’t succeed in science because they are discouraged; there is bias.
Read more about the gender argument: Barres’ his case in the Washington Post
and New York Times
This, from BrainFacts:
There are no innate gender differences that would have any meaningful effect on women's ability to do science and succeed in it. There is, however, a wealth of scientific evidence demonstrating that gender discrimination exists in science and negatively affects women. But when you show people data that show there is persisting bias, many will deny it. To me, that's what bias is all about: denying the data.
Speaking of data, let’s get back to some science. The Barres lab is indeed all about glia. Recent papers have explored the complexity of reactive astrocytes, ones that change in response to injury or disease. Are these reactive cells a good thing or a bad thing? Or both? This paper came out earlier this year, backed in part by Reeve:
Genomic Analysis of Reactive Astrogliosis
. From the paper, available in full:
It has been long debated whether reactive astrocytes are harmful or beneficial. In the past few years, both types of effects have been observed. For instance, reactive astrocytes can inhibit axon regeneration after CNS injury and can produce pro-inflammatory cytokines that exacerbate spinal cord injuries. Conversely, elegant work involving ablation of reactive astrocytes has demonstrated that reactive astrocytes are crucial for withstanding insult and improving recovery after CNS trauma, ischemia and in experimental autoimmune encephalitis EAE. Together these findings demonstrate that reactive astrocytes can play both beneficial and detrimental roles and raise the question of whether there might be different subtypes of reactive astrocytes, elicited depending on the nature of the injury or disease, that differ in their functions.
What does all this mean? As scientists continue to look deeper and deeper into the biology of glia, especially astrocytes, they may be able to modify their behavior and affect the process of disease or the recovery from trauma.
Here are two other Barres lab papers, both available to read in full:
A Transcriptome Database for Astrocytes, Neurons, and Oligodendrocytes: A New Resource for Understanding Brain Development and Function
-- This one describes Barres’ unprecedented success in purifying astrocytes.
The nature and role of neuron–glia interactions in controlling the development, function, and pathology of our brains remain among the greatest unsolved mysteries in neurobiology today. In particular, the development and function of astrocytes, a cell type that constitutes approximately one-third of mouse brain cells and nearly half of human brain cells, remain essentially uncharacterized. A central limitation in advancing our understanding of mature astrocyte development and function has been the lack of procedures that allow for their prospective purification.
Axon Degeneration: Molecular Mechanisms of a Self-Destruction Pathway
-- This paper is about nerve degeneration, which occurs after trauma, and the development of a transgenic mouse to study in detail how the process works.
Axon degeneration is a characteristic event in many neurodegenerative conditions including stroke, glaucoma, and motor neuropathies. However, the molecular pathways that regulate this process remain unclear. ....
As the primary signal conduit in neurons, axon fibers are on average 20,000 times larger than the cell body in length and total surface area. When the normal functions of this neuronal compartment are compromised by various insults such as trauma, blockade of axonal transport, or chemical toxicity, distinct morphological and molecular changes known as Wallerian degeneration result in cytoskeletal disassembly and granular degeneration of the axon distal to the injury site. This is followed by breakdown of the blood–brain barrier and infiltration of reactive glial cells to aid the removal of axonal and myelin debris.