Alzheimer’s researchers, and colleagues across neuroscience, are mourning the loss of Ben Barres, who died December 27 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 63. First diagnosed in March 2016, Barres continued pursuing the work he loved and discussed research plans until the very end. His last act as a scientist, days before his passing, was to complete letters of recommendation for all his trainees.

Ben Barres.

Barres had a passion for glia, those long-overlooked cells that make up the bulk of the brain. His work helped launch glial research into the mainstream. It convinced other scientists that these cells are far more than just passive “glue” that binds neurons together, and that they play active roles in shaping, maintaining, and destroying brain connections. More than a decade ago, at Stanford University, Barres uncovered that astrocytes help regulate synapse formation and transmission (Jan 2001 news; Christopherson et al., 2005). Later, Beth Stevens in his group found that astrocytes and microglia prune synapses in response to signals from complement proteins of the innate immune system, both during development and in neurodegenerative disease (Dec 2007 news). This work, which Stevens continues in her own lab, may help researchers devise ways to stem synapse loss in AD and other disorders (Mar 2015 conference news; Nov 2015 conference news; Apr 2016 news). In 2011 Barres cofounded a company, Annexon Biosciences, to develop therapeutics that target this system. An antibody directed against complement protein C1q is in Phase 1. 

While Barres’ synaptic and complement discoveries generated headlines, he advanced the field of glial biology more broadly, in part by providing comprehensive catalogues of gene expression by various types of purified glial cell. His transcriptome database for mouse astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and neurons became widely used; Barres noted that it was his most cited scientific paper (Jan 2008 news). More recently, Barres published transcriptomes for human astrocytes and mouse microglia (Jan 2016 newsJun 2017 news). Other studies in his lab plumbed the mysteries of oligodendrocyte behavior, and uncovered glia-glia interactions that may hold the key to toxicity in neurodegenerative disease (Mar 2010 newsJan 2017 news). 

With his postdoc advisor Martin Raff (left). [Courtesy of Martin Raff.]

Beyond his groundbreaking research, Barres gained recognition in the research community at large as a fierce advocate for diversity in science. Barres transitioned from woman to man at the age of 43. Experiencing how others reacted to him as first a female and then a male scientist gave him a unique perspective on the biases women face. His 2006 essay “Does Gender Matter?” triggered thousands of emails from female scientists describing their own experiences with gender discrimination (Barres, 2006). In 2013, Barres was the first transgender scientist to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He also championed the rights of young scientists; in the final year of his life, he argued in Nature that postdocs should be allowed to take their lines of research with them to their own labs (Barres, 2017). Barres’ life story and advocacy brought him lasting fame, and his death was covered across the scientific and general media. A recent story in The Scientist includes an in-depth interview about his life.

Taking the lab for a hike, circa 2005. Barres is at the far left. [Courtesy of Shane Liddelow.]

People who worked for Barres cite his extraordinary dedication to mentoring. He tirelessly promoted the careers of his mentees, and encouraged them to present their own research at conferences. He considered it essential that a scientist learn to discuss his or her research clearly, and lab meetings became marathon affairs as Barres argued about small details of the science. Barres prioritized helping students with their talks over his own needs. Mariko Bennett at Stanford told Alzforum that Barres was in the hospital recovering from a heart attack on the morning of her thesis defense, but still insisted on going over her talk with her to make sure she was ready. He was notorious for sending emails about research at two in the morning, leading his trainees to wonder if he ever slept.

Shane Liddelow, who is starting his own lab at New York University Langone Medical Center, told Alzforum that Barres allowed trainees to pursue their own research interests even when they diverged from other lab projects. “He trained people to be scientists, not to make him look good,” Liddelow said.

Barres continued following his trainees’ careers after they left the lab, offering advice when asked and encouraging them to apply for grants and awards. “Like a parent, he celebrated our accomplishments as if they were his own,” said Cagla Eroglu, now at Duke University. His mentorship extended beyond his lab to other young scientists. “I was never in his lab, but I owe him most of the major accomplishments in my career,” Ricardo Dolmetsch, now at Novartis, wrote to Alzforum (see full comment below).

Barres' Stanford profile picture, as created by wags in his lab. [Courtesy of Richard Daneman and Andrew Huberman.]

Colleagues recalled honesty, humor, and a forthright style. Barres showed up to formal meetings in shorts and an untucked shirt, and had no compunctions about calling out weak research, noted Adriano Aguzzi at the University of Zurich (see full comment below). At the same time, boundless curiosity, enthusiasm, and a warm personality earned him friends wherever he went. “He was so incredibly imaginative and innovative in the way he approached things. He had as much or more intellectual energy than anyone I have known,” David Holtzman at Washington University in St. Louis wrote to Alzforum. During his illness, Barres made arrangements to donate his brain for study after his death. In his last summer, he noted, tongue in cheek, “I am feeling increasingly guilty for holding up the research!”

Despite a life cut short, Barres’ career was prolific. His first paper on astrocytes and oligodendrocytes was published under the name Barbara Barres in 1988, and was followed by 182 additional ones. Alzforum covered Barres’ work in the news 16 times. He was generous with this time and collegial whenever Alzforum reporters requested his input on papers they were covering, and contributed 23 written comments since 2006. AD research history buffs may enjoy an Alzforum webinar chat with Barres from 12 years ago, long before the field at large had caught on to the importance of astrocytes and microglia in neurodegeneration (2005 webinar). Barres served on Alzforum's scientific advisory board in 2007. 

At the latest Harry Potter movie. [Courtesy of Shane Liddelow.]

In his personal life, Barres devoted much energy to exercise and dietary experiments. He loved biking and frequently took his whole lab on hikes in the California hills. He was a fan of the Atkins diet, but tried other approaches as well, from ketogenesis to pescovegetarianism. Aguzzi remembered one evening in a restaurant, when a salad covered in a sugary glaze “triggered a stern lecture to the waiter on insulin and fatty acid breakdown.” Barres loved good coffee, and felt deprived when the side effects of chemotherapy made it impossible for him to enjoy it anymore. He read voraciously, especially science fiction. Barres identified with the character of Harry Potter, the young wizard who feels like an outcast, devouring each new book in a single weekend and taking the lab to see the movies.

Barres never married or had children, but considered his trainees and fellow scientists his extended family. “Ben’s light was not so much extinguished as distributed among dozens, hundreds, or thousands of others,” wrote Mark Tuszynski at the University of California, San Diego.

Did you know Ben? Contribute a memory or photo to our community tribute page below.—Madolyn Bowman Rogers

Note: Madolyn Bowman Rogers was a graduate student in Ben Barres’ lab from 20012007.


  1. I had the privilege to get know Ben very well over the last 10 years working with him in many settings. He was unique in many ways. He was obviously a superb scientist, but he was so incredibly imaginative and innovative in the way he approached things. He had as much or more intellectual energy than anyone I have known. On the personal side, nothing meant more to him than cultivating the careers of young scientists. He treated all his own trainees as family, but he also advocated for trainees every chance he had. He was a truly remarkable human being. He will be sorely missed.

  2. Ben was an outstanding scientist. Though best known for his work on glia, he also made major contributions to developmental biology and to understanding the neurobiology of neurodegenerative disease.

    Collaborating with Ben was a joy. He was smart and wildly enthusiastic. He was a great judge of people and surrounded himself with great students and postdocs.

    He was also an extraordinary mentor and a good friend. The door to his office was always open and he was free with his advice and humor. He didn’t limit his mentoring to people in his lab, but was a tireless advocate for women and young scientists everywhere. I was never in his lab but I owe most of the major accomplishments in my career, from my tenure to my Pioneer award, to Ben’s tireless advocacy on my behalf. It’s remarkable that Ben did this for hundreds of people like me. I think we should all aspire to be like Ben.

  3. When I think of Ben Barres, I marvel at the amazing impact he had—not only on his field of science but also on disparate societal debates. He was fond of saying that his interventions in the gender debate were by far his most frequently cited writings. However, Ben was the exact opposite of the “social justice warriors” who infest social media today.

    Ben was funny, witty, self-deprecating, and always empathic. The latter did not prevent him from speaking his mind about academicians who value politicking over rigorous science. His ironical and often self-mocking side is what I want to highlight here.

    All of Ben’s alumni unanimously point out his support for young, meritorious scientists. (I asked him what he did with those who were not that meritorious, and he deadpanned: “I just do not think about them.”) Last September, when experiencing his last days of relatively good health, he connected me with one of his alumni (“an outstanding young scientist and serious biker”) whom he wanted to help gain footing in Switzerland. As was typical for Ben, he concluded his letter of introduction with a self-mocking remark: “Regards from Baltimore, I am here today to receive $50K for my Parkinson's research. I've never actually worked on Parkinson's but why quibble!”

    Ben and I met every couple of months in Boston, where we took part to the Neuroscience Advisory Group (the “Nag”) of Novartis. At a corporation notorious for being run like the Swiss army, Ben made a point of always showing up in shorts and making no effort to dissimulate his discontent when presented with bad or boring research. Unsurprisingly, the “Nag” was disbanded after a while!

    Ben was preoccupied with his metabolism, and went through a dizzying series of dietary experiments. While he was toying with a ketogenic diet, we once dined at an upscale Boston restaurant. Before starters, Ben carefully instructed the kitchen about carbohydrates and ordered a salad—which turned out to be covered with a thin, sugary glaze, and promptly triggered a diplomacy showdown (to the consternation of our corporate hosts) and a stern lecture to the waiter on insulin and fatty-acid breakdown. At our next meeting two months later, he had turned into a “pescovegetarian,” eating only fish and vegetables, but a few months later he surprised us by ordering a hamburger! When I last met Ben, at Stanford in the summer of 2017, he moved me to tears by stating: “I am dying anyway, therefore I can now enjoy pizza without remorse.”

    When my time comes, I can only hope to possess such strength and dignity, and such continued good humor facing the ultimate adversity.

  4. Ben was one of the most amazing scientists I knew, and he will be sorely missed throughout the scientific community. In my mind, an astounding aspect of Ben’s brilliance was his endless ability to identify the most interesting and fundamental scientific questions to work on in the lab.

    The breadth of topics that interested Ben ran from regulation of myelin formation, the role of astrocytes in synaptic formation and pruning, and CNS axonal regeneration to regulation of blood-brain barrier formation, fate selection of retinal cells, and CNS node of Ranvier formation. Thes are just a few of the topics that Ben touched on in his carrier.  

    His generosity in encouraging his postdocs and grad students to take their research topics with them out of the lab was testament to his passion for developing new, impactful scientists. His continued success was undoubtably facilitated by his inexhaustible ability to look around the lab and the scientific landscape to identify the next big unanswered question to work on.  

    His passion and brilliance as a scientist and mentor, as well as his advocacy for transgender, gay, and women’s rights, will be long felt.

  5. What a life! What a light! Ben’s achievements were great on many levels: science, education, and culture. Ben’s light was not so much extinguished as distributed among dozens, hundreds, or thousands of others. We will continue to see him in his trainees, colleagues, and those who gained the courage to speak out for what was right and true.

  6. I know I am just one of many saddened by the loss of our friend and colleague Ben Barres. It is really a great loss for the field, but we are blessed by an incredible legacy he has left for us—both in the discoveries he made, and equally importantly, the trainees who seeded a field for years to come. I wanted to share my memories of Ben, in the form of my last correspondence to him when I heard he was in hospice, just to highlight how much he meant to me and my career. I’m not sure if he saw it in time, but wherever you are now, thank you Ben.

    Dear Ben,

    As the year is winding down I have been looking back on things I am thankful for. I wanted to reach out and thank you for all of your mentorship over the years. Going back to the days sequestered in the basement of a Vegas hotel for APNRR, I’ve appreciated our frank conversations about both life and data. Ever since then, you’ve been incredibly generous with your time in providing advice for me, and I was not even in your lab! In fact, during the period of my postdoc when we were emailing about gene expression and various glia marker mice in ~2007, I eventually had to institute for myself an “only email Ben once a day” policy: You replied so quickly that as our chain discussion reached > 50 replies, I realized I couldn’t keep pace with your responses and still get my allotment of benchwork done for that day. (There were lots of mice that needed making!)

    The clearest memory that stands out is when you made time for breakfast with me in 2009 at SFN to discuss how to search for faculty positions. I was on the first year of my K99, and had no idea what I was doing. We talked about how to approach the job hunt, how departments think about the process, how to balance professional and personal constraints. Then you said something to the effect of, "Hey, you are from St. Louis, I think neurology at Wash U might be hiring …" and, at that moment, of 30,000 attendees at SFN, the chair of Wash U Neurology walked by. You chased him down and introduced me, we all had breakfast together and talked for an hour about sleep, Alzheimer's, and astrocytes. He was not hiring, but he gave me the email address for the new chair of genetics. And fast-forward a few years … I was awarded tenure this last October! So I wanted to thank you, Ben, for that introduction, for the advice over the years, and your support and enthusiasm for my occasionally clandestine activities in the science of glia: activities that have gradually taken over a big part of my lab. We’ll be at CSHL Glia this summer. Hopefully you can Skype in for a bit or watch remotely for a good scientific distraction? I hope that you are comfortable and surrounded by dear friends this holiday season. 

    My warmest regards,


    P.S.: Did you know that astrocytes have local translation?

  7. Ben Barres was my faculty mentor, office neighbor, and dear friend for the last 16 years. Ben had a transformative effect on me. He took me under his wing when I arrived at Stanford as an assistant professor, guiding me through the many challenges that postdoctoral training doesn't prepare you for. More than that, we became close friends through countless conversations—he and I talked almost every day, about science, issues that came up in the course of work, and current events. I learned a tremendous amount from Ben that way—he always had a strong opinion, governed by an overarching sense of fairness and tremendous energy to push for what was right. And while these conversations were serious, some ended with us laughing hysterically, or placing a ridiculous bet.

    Ben’s impact on science is transformative. Among many contributions, his group elucidated the molecular basis for a major form of synapse elimination in the developing CNS, showing that it is mediated by a part of the innate immune system called the classical complement cascade. In addition, a major theme of the lab's research has been to show that astrocytes, long thought to be primarily passive support cells, are actively controlling synapse development, function, and elimination. His group identified the astrocyte-derived protein thrombospondin as one of the first proteins necessary and sufficient to trigger excitatory synapse formation in vivoand subsequently identified and characterized its receptor, cacna2d1, which turned out to be the gabapentin receptor. 

    Building on this work, the Barres lab showed that while thrombospondin could induce structural synapses, a second pair of astrocyte secreted factors, the glypicans, are necessary and sufficient for these synapses to become active. More recently, his lab discovered that astrocytes actively engulf synapses in both the developing and adult brain using distinctive phagocytosis pathways, and demonstrated that reactive astrocytes make a toxic factor that is necessary and sufficient to cause CNS neuropathy. These discoveries have already substantially advanced our understanding of neurodegenerative disease, and Ben firmly believed that his start-up company, Annexon, would make major advances in the development of new therapies.

    Ben changed the playing field for women and minorities in science in ways that have opened opportunities for many other people to succeed. He created new awareness of how institutional systems and structures can instill biases that make it hard for women and minorities. His tireless lobbying of leaders at the biggest U.S. science funding organizations, the NIH and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, lead to changes in how these programs receive and evaluate applicants, changing fundamentally who receives the grants that fund the most cutting-edge, exciting work.

    Ben always made time to meet with a young person who needed advice—there were always people standing outside his office door waiting to chat, from high school students to junior faculty, and Ben often spent hours with each person. To this day, I am amazed by how much time he made for this, given the many other things that he had to do, and I know that these conversations had lasting impact.

    In the last 18 months, in my visits to universities around the world as part of my own work, literally everywhere I have gone, someone has come up to ask how Ben was, saying how Ben talked with them years ago and had changed the course of their career. The number of lives he touched directly is simply astounding, and his legacy will reverberate for years to come. 

  8. Ben will always be remembered for his vocal advocacy, on behalf of his trainees, on behalf of women in science, on behalf of his beloved field of glial biology, and on behalf of his latest diet craze. And while that vocal advocacy couldn’t help but make an impact, I’ll remember him as well for his steadfast advocacy, in more subtle ways, for those whose lives and families were impacted by cancer. Long before receiving the diagnosis that would ultimately take his life, he could always be counted on to be among the first and most generous donors to fund-raising efforts for the fight against cancer. And he showed patience and compassion for the challenges that cancer brings, even when those challenges were at odds with his tireless passion for advancing his science and his trainees. Of all the lessons I learned as one of Ben’s students—from proper framing of scientific questions, to not taking “no” for an answer, to appreciating that sharing credit with trainees is not a zero-sum game—it was his courage and charity in the face of cancer, both his own and that of others, that stands as a key part of his legacy.

  9. I first met Ben at the 1990 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. It was a tumultuous meeting, with competing interests in the AD field in full combat. Ben provided a humorous and incisive analysis, and we became fast friends for long after. Ben enjoyed championing the role of glia in AD and neurobiology in general, long before its significance was truly recognized.

    He played the underdog and loved to stand up and throw a wrench into dogmatic discussions at meetings. I always enjoyed watching this and seeing the consternation of others during these lively discussions. Ben was prescient, as became clear in the last 10 years with his discovery of the connection between glia and synapse formation and maintenance. He made sure the field advanced by training a large cadre of top-flight biologists, who have gone on to significantly advance glial biology.

    Having dinner with Ben was a unique experience. Whether it was his unconventional take on diets or his scathing assessment of a recent publication, he always kept the evening interesting. But he was also the consummate mensch. Be it his support of trainees in his lab or the role of women in science, or calling out discrimination in academia, he was a great humanist.

    Ben could always be counted on to provide good advice. Once, after presenting data at a meeting which Ben and I had discussed earlier, he turned to me and said “Bruce, when are you going to publish this? You know these aren’t the days of Darwin, when you can sit on your data for a decade.” I will miss his humor, his humanity, and his brilliance, but most of all, his collegiality and friendship.

  10. Ben was my first postdoc mentor, and I remember that period as one of the best times ever. Coming from abroad to Stanford University was rather overwhelming, but Ben made sure that I quickly felt at home in the Barres family. For me it was a joy to work with wonderful colleagues in Ben's lab, who all connected very well, thanks to Ben’s hand in putting together not only a great group of researchers but also matching personalities. In addition to Ben’s excellent scientific advice, he was foremost a mentor who could bring out the best of the trainees’ abilities in his lab.

    Furthermore, Ben made sure that we had all possible support needed to take the next steps in our scientific careers, even many years after leaving his lab. I am a proud member of the Barres family, and am sure Ben’s scientific and societal legacy will continue to have a big impact for many years to come.

  11. Ben was a truly remarkable person, who shared his enthusiasm for neuroscience, albeit mostly glia. He made us all question why we were not also investigating glial biology. Ben's generosity in sharing data and information, and his concern for the welfare of all scientists to ensure diversity, will survive as a lasting memory of his accomplishments.

  12. Adapted from comments delivered at a symposium held January 12, 2017, at Stanford University, to celebrate Ben Barres’ life.

    I had the great privilege of having Ben Barres as my first graduate student, which turned out to be an extraordinary gift for a starting assistant professor. Ben’s work jump-started the lab, making it an exciting place and helping to attract other superb students. But I study hair cells, the receptor cells of the inner ear. How did Ben come to study glia in a hair cell lab? Indeed, how did Ben ever start working on glial cells?

    It was certainly not a direct path. Like most good work in science, his emerged from a combination of chance and a prepared mind. Ben had been an undergraduate at MIT, where he became interested in the brain, and wanted to understand how it works. He went to medical school at Dartmouth, then did a residency in neurology at Cornell, eventually becoming chief resident. There, he figured, he could finally understand how the brain works. But he came to realize that neurologists don’t understand how the brain works—at least they didn’t back then—so after residency he came to Harvard Medical School to do a Ph.D. in neurobiology.

    Ben actually came to my lab before I had a lab: Soon after I had accepted a position at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, but before I arrived, Ben asked if he could do a rotation in the lab. Sure! In the meantime, he did a rotation with Linda Chun at the MGH, who studied glia. He became so interested in glia working with Linda that he decided to do his Ph.D. with her, but he still wanted to do a rotation with me, I suppose out of courtesy. Hair cell physiology is hard, so I told Ben I wasn’t going to teach him to work with hair cells. But I would teach him to patch clamp, and we could try it on some glia. At the time, glia were thought to have hardly any channels at all, so in hindsight this was an irresponsible suggestion on my part—almost cruel: “Here’s an electrode. Why don’t you, ahhh, look for channels in that glial cell there?”

    But, surprise! Glia have all sorts of channels. Lots of potassium channels, some voltage-gated sodium channels, even glutamate receptor channels. Ben characterized them all, in several different kinds of glia and glial precursors. It opened up a whole world of signaling by cells then thought to be akin to glue, and it was pretty heady for a young graduate student to be overturning the established work of many labs.

    In this, we were guided by the important work Martin Raff was doing on characterizing different glial subtypes. Ben began to publish some prominent papers, and decided to stay in my lab, with Linda as a co-advisor.

    Ben was extraordinarily productive. From his Ph.D. work, he published 11 papers, five of them in Neuron. It set a standard for the new Harvard graduate program in neuroscience that no one has ever surpassed. It may even have caused some dismay in his fellow students, as setting an impossible bar!

    Even while publishing on glia, Ben found time for hair cells. Perhaps inspired by the antibody-mediated panning procedures he developed for retinal cells, he developed a clever method for purifying hair-cell stereocilia, using sticky nitrocellulose paper, that allowed us to do a rudimentary proteome of the stereocilia. The method was later adapted and modified by Jim Hudspeth and Peter Barr-Gillespie, and Barr-Gillespie has taken it to new heights with high-sensitivity mass spec of pure stereocilia.

    Ben wondered about the nature of the hair cell tip link, a filamentous structure that extends between adjacent stereocilia and connects to the mechanotransduction channel. Based on appearance, he speculated that it might be composed of cadherins, and collected all known cadherin antibodies to try. We now know that the cadherin superfamily has more than 100 members and that the known ones were but a tiny subset, so it’s not surprising that he found nothing. But when the tip link proteins were finally identified, they were found to be ... cadherin 23 and protocadherin 15, and these now represent a major effort of my lab.

    What was he like in those days? Really no different from today. First, he was tremendously caring. The good neurologist never really left him. You couldn’t walk into the lab with a cough or a limp without Ben rushing over to find out what was wrong. And hounding you until you did something about it.

    Over his entire career, Ben had a passion for righting wrongs and applied it especially to the role of women in science. In his writings, in advisory boards, and in his speaking, he continually pushed for people to recognize the sometimes invisible barriers to advancement that women face, and for changes to the system to remove those barriers. For instance, on the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Council, he promoted changes to the selection process for the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Awards that resulted in many more women among the awardees.

    Ben’s sartorial style was never beholden to tradition. Walter Koroshetz, a postdoc in my lab at the time and now director of NINDS, recalls that Ben wore shorts to NINDS Council meetings even when it was below freezing in D.C. When Ben was a junior faculty member at Stanford, we asked him to apply for a chaired professorship in the Harvard Neurobiology Department. He wore a torn T-shirt for the job talk, not exactly traditional for Harvard Medical School. His style said, “If you want me, this is who I am. Take it or leave it.” Of course we wanted him, and we did offer him the position. But by then he felt very much at home at Stanford and decided to stay.

    As a student, Ben was tremendously dedicated to science. Even though he lived across the street, he kept a blanket under his desk so that he could spend more time in the lab, sleeping in short bits to keep experiments going. He had a toy stuffed goose named Henry that he used as a pillow for these naps. My grandchildren are now the proud caretakers of Henry.

    We began to worry about Ben and thought he should get out more. One time we got him a pass to the Museum of Science. He went, but came back depressed. At the museum, he saw families and children having fun at the exhibits, but he knew, even then, that he would not have children and could not have that life. Instead, he made science his life, and the lab, and all of us, his family. I remember this incident well, though Ben denied that he ever wanted a family. This may be true regarding children specifically, but surely his strong parenting of his trainees revealed an underlying instinct.

    During those years, my training in physics allowed me to “diagnose” one aspect of Ben’s personality, a sort of “psycho-electrical” disorder. Ben had no capacitors. His passion knew no limits, in either direction. A paper—or a person—was absolutely fantastic. Another paper—or person—was shockingly deplorable. In an electric circuit, we insert capacitors to dampen extremes. But lacking capacitors, Ben’s passion was there for all to see. (We New Englanders have lots of capacitors, but as a consequence we might not be nearly so interesting.) When Ben moved on to London, which I am quite sure was not ready for him, my lab became a quieter place. And although other talented students continued to do good work, it was not nearly so much fun.

    For 30 years, Ben brought that excitement and enthusiasm to Raff’s lab and then to generations of students and postdocs in his own. He was fearless in opening new fields of neurobiology, which will surely have major therapeutic impact for neurodegenerative disorders. But an equal contribution is inspiring and guiding a phenomenal group of trainees. No one who has met Ben has come away untouched; least of all those of us who have had the privilege of sharing a lab, and life, with him.

  13. Ben taught me how to think about science and approach problems as a scientist—everything a graduate student could hope for. But Ben also taught me so much more. He had a passion for life, and was so generous with his time. He made whoever he was talking with, or emailing, feel as if that was the most important thing he was doing at the time.

    I wanted to share brief personal remembrances about Ben. He loved the outdoors, encouraging lab hiking trips, but he was also active in individual efforts. He went out biking by himself, and talked about his trips up Old La Honda road, the most well-known hill climb within 20 minutes of Stanford. He bought a new bike, and got a kick out of his bike rack. It was easy to recognize Ben's car as he drove down El Camino in Palo Alto with his bike rack and front wheel holder sticking up. In the summer Ben loved the pool, sunbathing and swimming. 

    Ben's personality and interaction with his lab members was so influential that the lab felt like a family. That holds true even for new lab members I have met since leaving the lab, who did not overlap with my time there. His legacy will live on.

  14. BrightFocus is saddened to hear of the passing of a revered member of our scientific community. It was our privilege to fund one of Ben’s many innovative research ideas, as a co-principal investigator on one of our 2007 Centennial Awards, along with Drs. Bradley Hyman and David Holtzman. We especially salute Ben’s dedication to nurturing the careers of young scientists. He will not be forgotten.

  15. Thank you, Madolyn, for writing this touching obituary for Ben.

    Ben was one of my heroes, both as a trailblazing scientist and a strong advocate for the underrepresented. He was enthusiastically supportive not only of his own trainees but of people like me who reached out to him frequently as sort of an informal mentor. During my postdoc I talked with him in person only a handful of times, but we had an ongoing email correspondence that began with my technical questions and evolved over the years into discussions about much more. Emails I sent to him were frequently answered within 30 minutes and always within a few hours, sometimes at insane hours like 3 a.m.

    He shared his perspective about how he came to be a successful scientist, as well as advice on how to overcome the crap that studs academic research. When I began my search for a faculty position, he talked to me on the phone for almost an hour imparting practical advice, even though he was already fighting illness. This is certainly above and beyond what most mentors do for their own trainees—much less for a postdoc in another lab in whom there is zero vested interest.

    Ben was a person in an incredibly powerful position who used that power for good. He spoke out—again and again—against the destructive behaviors that tear at the progress of academic research. His statements about the disparity between the sexes in science are just as powerful now as they were when written. When his last editorial was published on the lack of support of PIs for their postdocs' burgeoning careers (Barres 2017), it spoke directly to many early-career scientists. Academic research is, in many ways, sick. I believe it now falls to us to pick up and carry Ben's torch in order to put a stop to the behaviors that hold our field back. We must continue to speak out against wrongdoing as he spoke out, and we must be ethical, generous, unbiased, and fair.

    Ben, your spirit lives on in a host of young and established scientists whose lives and careers you have inspired tremendously. We will strive to follow your example and to lift up the next generation of scientists as you did for us.

    Much love,
    Jen Dulin


    . Stop blocking postdocs' paths to success. Nature. 2017 Aug 30;548(7669):517-519. PubMed.

  16. I'll forever feel grateful to have known and worked with this beautiful mind, this scientist and human who fitted centuries of living into 63 years. In his final CaringBridge entry in mid-November, Ben sounded almost apologetic for being unable to share better news after the experimental antibody treatment failed and “my CT scan shows dramatic progression of my metastatic disease.” It is the only time that he ended his journal entry with “Love, Ben.” I believe he knew …

    I met Ben at a Christmas party a few years after I joined Stanford Medical School, and over the next decade became increasingly aware of the silent support he would give to all my efforts to guide students, apply for grants, and battle bureaucracy to do things in a different way. Once Ben becomes a presence in your scientific endeavors, he doesn’t let go. When Ben became co-PI on my NIH grant efforts, I realized I had a guiding light, and a star, by my side. Not only would my emails always get a prompt and inspiring response, he was also first to provide alternative options for a failed grant submission, a new plan of action to get hold of those instruments and people we needed. He walked the extra mile to find alternatives when grant funders “didn’t want to give us new toys.”

    I wish we had more time to finish planned projects. I so frequently quoted him, also in my new lab in South Africa, for knowing exactly the biases we face as women in science. A nonchalant, but powerful and public, “been there, done that” to make the world seem just a little brighter at that moment.

    Rest in peace dear Ben, you are living on in the people you inspired and the pioneering ideas that are now being explored by your followers.

  17. Ben was my closest friend for over 23 years. He was my biking partner,

    my hiking partner,

    my company co-founder,

    and my confidential (people who know Ben well will find it hard to believe) soul mate.

    Ben was my everlasting source of never-lasting, never-working diet regimens, of inside stories that, if exposed, would rock the scientific community, as well as dysfunctional biking gadgets and information on the merits of rare coffee beans that he could no longer drink.

    He was part of my close family, inspiration to my three daughters in a man’s world, and a fierce political agitator of my wife and my political and social views. He was the only liberal with whom I could have a discussion without mutual death threats, over a meal at Chipotle or frozen yogurt at Pinkberry after and, more recently instead of, a bike ride or a hike.

    Ben was an all-around fun person to be with. He combined self-deprecation with pride and a rebel passion for justice and science with Zen-like understanding of the cosmic insignificance of it all. He was at peace with both his life and death. I miss him dearly. 

  18. A great scientist, role model, and trail blazer in many respects has left us with Ben Barres. Ben was always very direct in his comments, critical or laudatory; he helped me look at my work more critically but he was also a big reason for me to stay at Stanford. I will miss Ben, but I will also continue to think of him as an inspiration for how to do science and be a good mentor.

  19. I have always considered science one of life’s most rewarding adventures, because you get to learn new things alongside people who are equally passionate for discovery. Ben was one of the most passionate people I have known.

    I first met Ben at an NIH study section when he was still known as Barbara. From that first meeting I immediately appreciated his integrity, dedication to service, and love for science. Shortly thereafter he shared with me his plan to transition, and I vividly remember realizing that I was in the presence of an incredibly honest, genuine, and brave human being. Our friendship continued, and through the years I enjoyed watching Ben’s science break open new areas in biology. And as his scientific voice grew more prominent, he used that prominence to break down barriers for those whose voices were less heard—women, under-represented individuals, and trainees. He used any forum he had to highlight the value of recognizing and supporting ALL members of the scientific community.

    In 2008, the Society for Neuroscience honored Ben with the Mika Salpeter Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes an individual with outstanding career achievements who also significantly promoted the professional advancement of women in neuroscience. While Ben spoke frequently about this and wrote thoughtful commentaries about it, he led by example and his actions were the finest example in how to mentor the next generation. A large proportion of his mentees, many of them women, are now faculty members at major universities.

    I will miss Ben and our conversations, but I am comforted by the power of memory and the lasting legacy that will keep Ben alive in our hearts and minds. Because Ben did it right, he will live on through his trainees and all those who have been touched by his work, words, actions, and writings. 

  20. Updated from comments delivered at a symposium held January 12, 2017, at Stanford University, to celebrate Ben’s life. Note that on January 19 of this year, Raff published a one-page tribute to Barres' life (Raff, 2018) .

    Ben came to my lab in London as a postdoc in 1990, right after finishing his Ph.D. with David Corey. He was the hardest-working scientist I had ever encountered—or have encountered since. He worked in the lab 16 hours a day, seven days a week. This may be standard practice in the U.S., but it was certainly not in the U.K. He often slept overnight on the floor of my small office, which meant that I sometimes whacked him on the head when I opened the office door in the morning—until he learned to sleep with his head at the other end of the office. Needless to say, he saw very little of London; we once managed to drag him to theatre, but he didn’t make it past the first act of the play before heading back to the lab. I have still not adjusted to life without Ben.


    . Ben Barres (1954-2017). Science. 2018 Jan 19;359(6373):280. PubMed.

  21. Ben’s science was driven by his boundless curiosity and passion for understanding the misunderstood—glia. We shared this passion for glia, among other things.

    Ben was my mentor, my inspiration, and my friend. I miss him dearly.

    Ben taught me many things. He inspired me to ask big questions, to think critically, and to take risks. Perhaps more importantly, he taught me the importance of generosity in science. Ben was generous with his time, his ideas, and his knowledge. So many of his curiosities sparked new ideas and directions he encouraged us to develop and advance in our own labs. Ben was equally generous to his colleagues, especially young scientists.

    Ben had a strong moral compass. He cared about the truth and doing the right thing, no matter the consequences. He was a tireless advocate for women and underrepresented minorities. He taught me the importance of speaking up, taking action and leaning in.  

    I am fortunate to be part of a remarkable extended family that Ben led and nurtured. He was so proud of his trainees and bragged to anyone who would listen when one of us had a paper published or made a new discovery. He created a close-knit family that spans multiple generations. This knowledge gave Ben great comfort in his final days. 

    It’s hard to imagine a world without Ben. I will do my best to live the lessons and share the wisdom Ben has taught me.

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News Citations

  1. Glia May Regulate Synaptic Formation and Transmission
  2. Paper Alert: Does the Complement Devour Synapses?
  3. Microglia Rely on Mixed Messages to Select Synapses for Destruction
  4. Microglia Control Synapse Number in Multiple Disease States
  5. Paper Alert: Microglia Mediate Synaptic Loss in Early Alzheimer’s Disease
  6. Not Just “Glia”: Astrocytes Are Specialized Eating Machines, Not Oligodendrocyte Siblings
  7. Purification of Adult Human Astrocytes Shows: They Are Unique
  8. What Makes a Microglia? Tales from the Transcriptome
  9. MicroRNAs—Oligarchs of Oligodendrocyte Fate
  10. Microglia Give Astrocytes License to Kill

Webinar Citations

  1. Are Glia Active Participants in Neurodegenerative Disease?

Image Listing with Navigation Citations

  1. 2007 Scientific Advisory Board

Paper Citations

  1. . Thrombospondins are astrocyte-secreted proteins that promote CNS synaptogenesis. Cell. 2005 Feb 11;120(3):421-33. PubMed.
  2. . Stop blocking postdocs' paths to success. Nature. 2017 Aug 30;548(7669):517-519. PubMed.

External Citations

  1. antibody directed against complement protein C1q
  2. Barres, 2006
  3. The Scientist 

Further Reading


  1. . In Memoriam: Ben Barres. J Cell Biol. 2018 Jan 18; PubMed.