Frances Lefcort


Distinguished Professor Lecture

Date: April 4, 2017
Time: 4 PM
Place: Procrastinator Theater, Strand Union Building

  • A reception will follow in the Leigh Lounge

Title: Why Do Neurons Die in Familial Dysautonomia and Can We Rescue Them?


Diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS are debilitating because key populations of neurons (nerve cells) die, and without them, our nervous systems can’t function properly. Lefcort's lab studies a much less common, but no less devastating, neurological disease called Familial Dysautonomia. The researchers in her lab are trying to understand why neurons die in this disease. If they can answer this question, they can develop therapeutic strategies for trying to prevent neuronal death. It’s becoming increasing clear that the death of neurons in several of the major neurological diseases result from shared or converging intracellular pathways. Consequently, their goal is to apply what they learn from studying Familial Dysautonomia to treating the most prevalent neurological disorders that plague us. 

About the speaker

Lefcort first came to MSU in 1994 as an assistant professor after earning her Ph.D. in neurobiology from the University of California, Berkeley. She has also been an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Biological Structure at the University of Washington School of Medicine since 1995, and was a visiting professor at the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, Italy in 2010. She served as the department head of the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience from 2012 to 2016, and was the co-founder and interim director of the Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery at MSU.

Lefcort is a researcher of national and international stature due to her seminal contributions in the field of nervous system developmental biology. She studies how embryonic progenitor cells, particularly the neural crest, multiply, migrate and differentiate into the myriad of specific cell types found in adults. In recent years, her work has focused on the genetic disease, Familial Dysautonomia, which devastates the sensory and autonomic nervous systems. Lefcort's lab has successfully created several animal models of this disease which will allow scientists to test a variety of drugs to treat the disease in humans. She has published over 35 articles in the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals in her field, including "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)," "Nature Neuroscience" and "Nature Communications." Her work has been continually funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1995.

In addition to being an outstanding researcher, she excels in the classroom, teaching several courses for her department on neural development and neuroscience to both undergraduates and graduate students. She also chaired and taught the WWAMI Medical Nervous System course for 15 years, integrating cutting edge science into the course due to her own medically relevant research. She consistently receives excellent teaching evaluations.

Lefcort is committed to training the next generation of scholars, scientists and medical professionals, personally training and mentoring over 40 individuals in her lab, including high school students, undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

In 2010 she received the MSU Wiley Award for Meritorious Research, and was a speaker for the Provost's Distinguished Lecturer Series in 2013. In 2015, she received the Hero Award from the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health in recognition of her efforts to improve the lives of Montanans who live with serious mental illness.