Benes, Francine

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Benes, Francine


Neuroscientist and psychiatrist

B orn May 8, 1946, in New York City; daughter of Joseph William and Emma Mary Benes. Education: St. John’s University, New York, B.A., 1967; Yale School of Medicine, Ph.D. in cellular biology, 1972; City of Hope National Medical Center, CA, postdoctoral training in single-cell neurochemistry, early 1970s; Yale Medical School, M.D., 1978.

Addresses: Office—McLean Hospital, 115 Mill St., Belmont, MA 02478.


F ounded the Laboratory for Structural Neuro-science at McLean Hospital, Belmont, MA, 1982; assistant professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, 1982-87; director, Program in Structural and Molecular Neuroscience, McLean Hospital, Belmont, MA, 1992—; director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, 1996—; professor, Harvard Medical School, 1997—.

Member: National Wildlife Federation; Humane Society of the United States; editorial board of Biotech-niques, 1990-96; chair, McLean Hospital Affirmative Action Committee, 1993-94; Board of Directors, Walden Pond Reservation Trust, Concord, MA, 2001—; National Institute of Medicine, 2004—.

Awards: Shervent S. Frazier Lifetime Achievement Award, 1999; National Institute of Mental Health Merit Award, 2000-02; Lieber Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Schizophrenia Research, National Association for Research in Schizophrenia and Depression, 2002; Institute of Medicine inductee, National Academies, 2004; Kempf Fund Award for Research Development in Psychobiological Psychiatry, American Psychiatric Association, 2006; William Silens Lifetime Achievement in Mentoring Award, Harvard Medical School, 2006.


A s director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, neuroscientist Francine Benes oversees a collection of nearly 6,000 brains. Her facility— commonly known as the Brain Bank—stockpiles human brains for medical researchers around the globe. The Brain Bank receives about one brain a day and is specifically interested in collecting three types of brains: “normal” brains from disease-free people; brains from people with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases; and brains from those diagnosed with mental illnesses—particularly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

As a scientific sleuth, Benes has dedicated her career to investigating the biology of mental illness. “The brain is biology’s last, vast frontier,” Benes told the Boston Phoenix’s Alicia Potter. “And within brain studies, those aspects of the brain that give rise to thinking and feeling, cognitive function, and our ability to reason really constitute the final mystery of biological science.” Over the course of her career, Benes has completed groundbreaking research on schizophrenia. In 2004, Benes was recognized for her work by being elected to the prestigious Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences. In the field of medicine, this honor ranks among the highest.

Benes was born on May 8, 1946, in New York City to Joseph and Emma Benes. She was raised in the borough of Queens. As a child, Benes figured she would grow up and go into education or social work. That all changed in eighth grade when Benes had a teacher who created personal poems for each student. “The poem she wrote for me was about me becoming a scientist,” Benes recalled in an article on “I had never thought about being a scientist, but from then on I realized it was something to strive for.” Benes attended St. John’s University in New York, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1967. Five years later, Benes earned her Ph.D. in cellular biology from the Yale School of Medicine.

Benes became interested in mental illness after attending a neuroscience conference at a Colorado ski resort in 1973. While there, she heard a speech about schizophrenia. The presenter proposed that the mental illness might be caused by a dopamine disturbance. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. In the 1970s, the idea that schizophrenia could be caused by bad circuitry was a radical notion. Psychiatrists at the time thought schizophrenia was more likely a character flaw brought on by poor parenting. Speaking to the Boston Globe’s Pagan Kennedy, Benes described her reaction to the talk. “I was standing in the back of the room, and it blew me away. Schizophrenia could now be visualized in terms of the cir-cuitries of the brain.”

The next morning, while riding the ski lift, Benes talked the matter over with a neuropathologist. The man disagreed with the presenter’s views and told Benes that nothing abnormal had been detected in the brains of people with schizophrenia. He insisted the idea had been studied earlier in the century and that nothing unusual was found. Benes recalled her reaction in an article for “All I could think of was how could you find nothing? If you really seriously look, you’ve got to find something, so I just got intrigued with this, and I decided that I was going to devote my career to the study of schizophrenia.”

At this point, having spent eight years studying cellular biology, Benes decided to become a psychiatrist so she could study schizophrenia. After earning her medical degree from Yale in 1978, Benes began a residency at McLean Hospital, one of the nation’s top-rated psychiatric hospitals. McLean, located in Belmont, Massachusetts, is affiliated with Harvard Medical School. After her residency, Benes stayed at McLean and established the Laboratory for Structural Neuroscience in 1982. Accompanied by several other researchers, Benes began doing postmortem schizophrenia research.

Speaking to Psychology Today, Benes is quoted as ssaying she felt “pure awe” the first time she saw a brain. “I was a graduate student at Creedmore State Hospital when I saw a postmortem brain being carried down the hall. I asked if I could watch them prepare it. All I could think was that about 10 minutes before, the person might have been alive. And now we were holding the organ of the body that in essence made them who they were.”

In 1996, Benes became director of the Brain Bank, succeeding its founder, Edward Bird, who had established it in 1978. The Brain Bank collects about 350 brains a year and annually distributes thousands of individual specimens to researchers around the world. When a brain arrives, one hemisphere is usually preserved in formaldehyde, while the other is dissected into slices and freeze-dried in liquid nitrogen. The specimens are stored in a place staffers have dubbed “the Tupperware room,” where shelves hold plastic containers of brain slices.

Researchers have used brains from the bank to pinpoint the gene that causes the progressive neuro-muscular disorder known as Huntington’s disease. The brains have also been used in research that has led to treatments for Parkinson’s. Aside from collecting brains, the laboratory oversees the National Brain Data Bank. This collection of data—available to the public—consists of thousands of genetic profiles on brains from people with psychiatric and neurological disorders. Scientists who receive tissue samples from the Brain Bank are asked to submit their findings to the data bank.

Besides directing the Brain Bank, Benes has continued her research on schizophrenia and has found evidence to support the idea that subtle wiring defects in the brain play a role in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Benes has also discovered that degenerative changes in the brain are not associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as with Alzheimer’s disease. Her findings are being used by researchers to study new treatments and prevention strategies. In 1997, Benes traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, to present her research at a Nobel Symposium on Schizophrenia held at Karolinska University. Benes’ work attracted so much attention that the National Institute of Mental Health awarded her $4 million over a ten-year period to carry on her research on schizophrenia and manic-depressive disorder. Benes believes breakthroughs are on the horizon—and so do her colleagues.

“With each important discovery, Benes continues to provide new hope to the countless individuals and their families whose lives have been robbed of the basic human qualities that most people take for granted,” her colleague, Bruce Cohen, is quoted as saying in Reintegration Today. “The path to treatment is long and winding; however, with individuals like Francine Benes leading the way, that path is filled with promise.”



Boston Globe, December 13, 1998, p. 1 (Northwest Weekly); June 13, 2004, p. 34.

Psychology Today, July-August 2004, p. 26.

Reintegration Today, Winter 2005, p. 5.


“Doctor Controls Harvard’s Brain Trust,”, (October 11, 2007).

“Francine Benes: Brain Collector,” Harvard University Gazette, (October 11, 2007).

“Francine Benes, MD, PHD,” McLean Hospital, (October 11, 2007).

“How to Get Ahead in Science: The Future of Neu-rology Lies in a Room Full of Tupperware in Belmont,” Boston Phoenix, (October 11, 2007).


Additional information was obtained from a press biography from Dr. Francine Benes.

—Lisa Frick