The Neurobiology Lab - Professor Max Bennett

Maxwell R. Bennett AO
Professor of Neuroscience,
University Chair,
Director Brain and Mind Research Institute,
University of Sydney

Maxwell R Bennett AO


Maxwell Bennett is Professor of Neuroscience and holds the first University Chair for ‘research recognized internationally to be of exceptional distinction’ He graduated in Electrical Engineering and did his doctoral research in Zoology at Melbourne University. He then turned to the brain sciences and was appointed to a Personal Chair at Sydney University, after the first Personal Chair Lord May, at which time he was awarded the largest personal Centre of Research Excellence by the Australian Government. His over 300 papers are concerned with research on synaptic connections between nerve cells in the brain. This research led to the discovery that novel transmitters exist at synapses, the first to be identified in fifty years, for which he received the major award in biology and medicine in Australia, the Macfarlane Burnet Medal of the Academy of Sciences. His subsequent discovery that molecules exist at synapses which guide their reformation after nerve injury was recognized by an invitation to give the opening Plenary Lecture to the World Congress of Neuroscience in 1996. Bennett's research then showed that there are silent synapses, in which nerve terminals are physically present but do not release transmitters. This has had important implications for changes in the brain responsible for learning and memory and was followed by appointment in 2000 as an Officer in the Order of Australia (AO). Professor Bennett has written seven books concerned with the history and philosophy of the brain and mind, of which the most recent are, with his colleague Peter Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, Neuroscience and Philosophy and History of Cognitive Neuroscience. These have created much interest as indicated, for example, by a recent invitation to give a talk on this subject at the United Nations in New York on the date of 9/11. Amongst the organizations he has initiated to promote science and brain research are the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, the main lobby group for science in Australia, the International Society for Autonomic Neuroscience, as well as Brain and Mind Research Asia/Pacific. Professor Bennett founded the Brain and Mind Research Institute seven years ago, and with the raising of over $80 million and four juxtaposed buildings, now has seventeen research professors concerned with the amelioration of diseases of the brain and mind.


1. Contributions to Neuroscience.
For sixty years it was thought that nerve terminals release only two substances (noradrenaline and acetylcholine) that control the cells on which they make connections. Bennett showed in the 1960's that there are at least two other substances released at synapses, which he called NANC (Non-Adrenergic & Non-Cholinergic) synapses. Now over thirty have been identified.  One of these is ATP, which has now been shown to play a major role in the generation of pain following nerve injury as well as in the immune systems control of inflammation. This has resulted in contemporary pharmacology having as a main aim the blocking of ATP so as to ameliorate pain. Bennett discovered in the 1970's that nerve terminals reform connections on other cells after a nerve injury at sites that have specialized molecules on their surface for triggering the terminals to stop growing and form a synapse, the synapse formation molecules. These synapse formation molecules have recently been identified. This holds out great hope for reconstructing nerve connections after an injury. Bennett’s research in the 1980's revealed that there are synapses in which nerve terminals are physically present but do not release transmitters, which he called silent synapses. This has had important implications for changes in the brain responsible for learning and memory. As a consequence of this research on synapses the Australian Academy of Sciences conferred on Bennett in 2000 the major award in biology and medicine, the Macfarlane Burnet Medal, and the University of Sydney its first University Chair, for ‘research recognized internationally as of exceptional distinction’. In addition, in 2001 he received the Distinguished Achievement Medal of the Australian Neuroscience Society, only the second time it had been awarded for research in the 25 year-old history of the Society and was elected President of the International Society for Autonomic Neuroscience.

2. Contributions to the history and philosophy of the Brain and Mind Sciences.
Bennett is the leading neuroscientist on the history and philosophy of brain and mind research. The main theme of his philosophical work in the 1990's, primarily with his colleague Peter Hacker, was that the brain sciences have distorted the use of language in attributing our psychological capacities as in thinking, remembering, perceiving etc to the brain rather than to the person whose brain it is; the brain being necessary for us to express these abilities, but it is we who express them. This Mereological Principle has had profound implications for how we view ourselves. In his historical work since 2000, Bennett has followed the evolution of our ideas concerning the functioning of the different components of the brain and their organization from the time of Aristotle to the present. He has shown how fundamental ideas arise in this area through a combination of research, prejudice and irrationality and of how strong hypotheses concerning brain function are often abandoned for extended periods of time in favor of less logical hypotheses. This in particular holds for the Modular Fallacy, in which researchers hold that modules or networks of modules exist in the brain which can be identified with psychological capacities. Bennett’s most recent works include The Idea of Consciousness (1998), History of the Synapse (2000), Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (2003; with P.Hacker); Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind and Language (with D.Dennett, J.Searle and P. Hacker; 2006); and History of Cognitive Neuroscience (2008, with P. Hacker). Recognition of his stature in this area was afforded in Christmas 2005 when he was invited by the American Philosophical Association to give a plenary presentation at their annual meeting in New York, the first neuroscientist to be so invited.

3. Contributions to the founding of new organizations to promote Brain and Mind research.
Bennett has a deep commitment to the amelioration of diseases of the brain and mind. To this end he established the major research/clinical facility in Australia for the treatment/research of those suffering from these diseases, ‘The Brain and Mind Research Institute’ at Sydney University. The first stage of this was opened by the Governor of NSW (Professor Marie Bashir ) in 2004, the second stage by the Prime Minister of Australian, the Honorable John Howard in June 2006, the third stage by the Premier of NSW the Honorable Morris Iemma in February 2007, the fourth stage by the Honorable John Howard in 2009 and the fifth stage by the Governor of NSW (Professor Marie Bashir) and the Honorable Morris Iemma in November 2009. Raising over $ 80 million has allowed a complex of four buildings devoted to the amelioration of brain disease through the integrated work of basic brain sciences, clinical and translational research and youth mental health.
Bennett has been responsible for organizing the thirty-six University and Research Institutes that make up the Association of Pacific Rim Universities forming ‘Brain and Mind, Asia/Pacific’ in 2004-2005. The aim of this is to marshal the great research strengths of these Universities to ameliorate diseases of the brain and mind. His work on the Mental Health Council of Australia (2002-) and as a Director of the Australian Brain Foundation (2004-), of Neuroscience Australia (2002-2005) as well as of the Institute for Biomedical Research (2002-2006) and the International Brain Research Organization (1996-2002) has enabled him to make further contributions to assist those suffering from diseases of the brain and mind.

4. Contributions to the community through explaining the discoveries made in the Brain Sciences and their implications.
Bennett has felt a major responsibility to explain progress made in the brain sciences to the community as well as the ethical and philosophical issues that arise from this progress. He frequently makes invited presentations to, for example, gatherings of Supreme Court Judges, senior business leaders, church leaders and public forums involving dialogue with distinguished guests such as the Dali Lama. In addition, Bennett is a frequent guest in the media, making presentations on questions concerning brain and mind research and its history, such as on John Cade (the discoverer of lithium for the treatment of bipolar manic/depression) and Sir John Eccles (the Australian Nobel Prize winning brain scientist and theorist on the relation between brain & mind). Bennett has been chosen to assist in many Australian Government task forces to advise Ministers of Health, Education and Science on how to best optimize the nations research capacity in the brain and mind sciences and use this for the alleviation of suffering of our fellow citizens. In this regard, on the date of 9/11 in 2009, Bennett gave an invited talk in the United Nations (New York) on ‘Brain Function in relation to Criminality’.


- Table of Contents - 
Section 1:

Awards and Honours
Awards of the National Heart Foundation 
  for Excellence in Research
Recent Academic Appointments 
Recent Invited Lectures 
Recent Appointments to Boards and Councils 
Recent Government Appointments 
Recent National Symposia
Recent Presentations 
Initiation and Establishment of Organizations 
Degrees & Theses
International Committees
National Committees
Other National Committees 
Australian Academy of Sciences 
University of Sydney 

Recent Editorship of Journals
Books & Monographs

Section 2:

Citation - On being made Professor of Neuoscience.

Section 3:

Research Contributions - On the biophysics of synapse formation and function
Research Contributions - On the formation and function of synapses

Section 4:

Citation - On the award of a University Chair
Citation - On receiving a 'Tall Poppy' award for Research Excellence
Citation - On receiving the Academia Ophthalmologica Internationalis Award
Citation - On completing 40 years of research at the University of Sydney
Grateful Acknowledgements

Section 5:
Section 6:

Neurobiology Lab
-Main Page-
The Lab
Current Research
Lab Members
Links & Info
Dept of Physiology
Faculty of Medicine

© University of Sydney,

Section 1

Awards and Honours 
1981 Fellow, Australian Academy of Science (FAA)

1989-1991 President, Australian Neuroscience Society 

1996 Ramaciotti Medal (Ramaciotti Foundation) 

1999 Burnet Medal (Australian Academy of Science) 

2001 Officer, Order of Australia (AO) 

2001 Distinguished Achievement Medallion (Australian Neuroscience Society) 

2001-2003 President, International Society for Autonomic Neuroscience 

2001- University Chair (University of Sydney) 

2001 Excellence in Science (Tall Poppy) Award (Australian Institute of Political Science) 

2002 Academia Ophthalmologica Internationalis Award 

2003 Centenary Medal 

2009 Honorary Fellow, Australian Neuroscience Society 

Awards of the National Heart Foundation for Excellence in Research 
1996 Goddard Research Award 

1998 Renensson Research Award 

1999 Malcolm Research Award 

2000 Almgren Research Award 

2001 Almgren Research Award

Recent Academic Appointments 
1982 - 1990 Director, Special Research Centre of Excellence in Neurobiology (ARC), University of Sydney 

1983 - 2000 Professor of Physiology (Personal Chair), University of Sydney 

2001 - Professor of Neuroscience & University Chair, University of Sydney

2004 - Scientific Director, Brain and Mind Research Institute

Recent Invited Lectures 
1996 Opening Plenary Lecture, World Congress of Neuroscience (Kyoto) 

1999 Burnet Lecture, Australian Academy of Science (Canberra) 

1999 Cade Lecture, Mental Health Institute (Melbourne) 

2001 Sesquicentenary Lecture of the University of Sydney (Sydney) 

2001 Doyle Lecture, High Blood Pressure Research Council of Australia (Melbourne) 

2001 Plenary Lecture, International Conference, Research Society on Alcoholism (Montreal) 

2002 Featured Speaker, XIV World Congress of Cardiology (Sydney) 

2002 Academia Ophthalmologica Internationalis Oration (Sydney) 

2005 Blandford Lecture, Eye and Cornea Australia (Sydney)

2005 Plenary Lecture, American Philosophical Association (New York)

2006 Keynote Speaker, International Congress of Neuropsychiatry (Sydney)

2007 Keynote Speaker, The Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (Brisbane)

2008 Plenary Lecture, World Congress in Medical Informatics (Brisbane)

2008 Plenary Lecture, International Congress in Nanotechnology (Perth)

2009 Plenary Lecture, World Congress of Mental Health Nurses (Sydney)

2009 Grass Lecture, Indian National Institute of Mental Health & Neuroscience (Bangalore)

2009 Invited Lecture, Nour Foundation (United Nations, NY)

2010 Keynote Speaker,Brain and Mind Research in the Asia Pacific (Seoul)

2010 Keynote Speaker, 12th International Criminal Law Congress (Queensland)

2010 Invited Lecture, Yale University (New Haven)

Recent Appointments to Boards and Council

2009 - Templeton Foundation (Distinguished Senior Advisor)

2004 - Australian Brain Foundation (Director)

2004 - Brain and Mind Research Foundation (Member of Council)

2003 - Mental Health Research Institute (Member, Advisory Council) 

2003 - Brain and Mind Australia (Chair) 

2002 - Mental Health Council of Australia (Member of Council) 

2002-2004 - Neuroscience Australia Ltd (Director) 

2002 - Brain and Mind Research Institute (Director) 

2002-2006 - Institute for Biomedical Research (Member of Board) 

2001-2003 - International Society for Autonomic Neuroscience (Chair of Council) 

1996-2001 International Brain Research Organization (Member of Council) 

Recent Government Appointments 
2004 National Neuroscience Consultative Taskforce (DHA)

2003 National Research Infrastructure Task Force (DEST) Working Party 

2003 Brain and Mind Disorders (PMSEIC) 

2001-2007 Neuroscience and Neurology National Programs (NHMRC) 

Chair, Recent National & International Symposia 

2010 'Brain and Mind Research in the Asia/Pacific' (Korea, Chair)

2006 'Brain and Mind Research in the Asia/Pacific' (Sydney, Chair)

2005 'Genes, Neurons and Mental Illness' (Sydney, Chair)
(Implications of research in Neurology for the study of the Psychoses)

2004 'Genes, Neurons and Mental Illness' (Sydney Chair)

2004 'Endophenotypes and Mental Illness' (Sydney, Chair)
(Responding to The Challange of Youth Mental Health)

2003 'Genes, Neurons and Mental Illness' (Sydney, Chair) 

2002 'Genes, Neurons and Mental Illness' (Sydney, Chair) 

2000 'Mind and Brain', Australia's Science Future (Canberra, Chair) 

Recent Presentations 

2010 Supreme Court of NSW

2009 Australian Judges Conference

2008 Judicial Commission of Australia

2006 Environment Court of NSW

2005 Union Club, Sydney

2004  National Science Week Forum (St Michael's Church)

2004 'Troubled Minds: the Lithium Revolution' (SBS)

2003 Supreme Court of NSW 

2003 Union Club, Sydney 

2003 Portrait of Sir John Eccles (Science Show, Radio National) 

2002 Panel with Dalai Lama on Brain & Mind (ANU) 

2002 Brain and Mind (Science Show, Radio National) 

2002 Sesquicentenary Dinner, The University of Sydney 

Books & Monographs 
‘Autonomic Neuromuscular Transmission’  (1972)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press; ISBN 0521084636 

‘Optimising Research and Development in Australia’ (1987)  
Publisher: Australian Academy of Science; ISBN 0858471388 

‘The Idea of Consciousness: Synapses and the Mind’ (1997)  
Publisher: Harwood Academic; ISBN 9057022036 

‘History of the Synapse’ (2001)
Publisher: Harwood Academic; ISBN905823132  

'Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience' (2003)  
Publisher: Blackwell; ISBN 1 4051 0855 X(with P.M.S.Hacker)

'Neuroscience and Philosophy : Brain, Mind and Lanugage' (2006)
Publisher: Columbia University Press (with D.Dennett, P.Hacker, J.Searle)

'History of Cognitive Neuroscience' (2008)
Publisher: Wiley/Blackwell; ISBN 9781405181822 (with PMS Hacker)

Degrees & Theses 

1963 Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) [University of Melbourne] 

1965 MSc Thesis [University of Melbourne], A study of transmission from autonomic nerves to smooth muscle 

1967 PhD Thesis [University of Melbourne], A study of transmission from autonomic nerves to smooth muscle 

1977 DSc [University of Sydney], Studies on synaptic transmission

Initiation and establishment of organizations 
1985  Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS)

1995 International Society for Autonomic Neuroscince (ISAN)

1995 Institute for Biomedical Research (IBR)

2001 Sydney University Neuroscience (SUN)

2002 Brain and Mind Research, Asia/Pacific

2003 Brain and Mind Research Institute (BMRI)
International Committees 
International Union of Physiological Sciences, Scientific Committee (Member) 1980 - 1983 

International Brain Research Organization, Council (Member) 1989-1991 

International Society for Autonomic Neuroscience (ISAN), Inaugral Committee (Chair) 1994 - 1996 

World Congress of Neurosciences, Scientific Committee (Member) 1994 

International Society for Autonomic Neuroscience, Council (Executive President), 1996 - 1998 

International Catecholamine Conference, Scientific Committee (Member), 2000- 

International Society for Autonomic Neuroscience, President, 2001 - 2003 

National Committees 
Federation of Australian Scientific & Technological Societies [FASTS], Inaugral Committee (Chair) 1984 - 1986 

Australian Societies for Experimental Biology, Planning Committee for Bicentenary of Medical and Biological Sciences in Australia (Chair) 1985 - 1988 

Other National Committees 
Churchill Trust (NSW Panel) 2003- 

Australian Neural Networks Inaugural Conference (Co-Chair) 1990 

Australia Prize Committee (Member) 1992 

Australia Prize Sub-Committee (Member) 1995 

Australian Medial Research and Development Corporation (Advisory Member) 1992 - 1997 

Monash University Science Review (Member) 1992 

Australian National University Neuroscience Reviews (Chair) 1986, 1988, 1989 

Australian National University School of Biological Sciences Review (Member) 1986 

Australian National University John Curtin School Review (Member) 1988 

Australian National University Development Committee Reviews 1989 - 1992

Australian Academy of Sciences 
National Committee for Physiology (Chair) 1984 - 1986 

Annual General Meeting Symposium on Science and Society (Chair) 1986 

Frederick White Research Prize (Chair) 1989 

Sectional Committee 8 for Election (Chair) 1988 - 1989 

Science Policy Committee (Member) 1985 - 1995 

Australian Science and Technology Information Service (Member) 1988 - 1989 

Sectional Committees 6 and 8 for Election (Member) 1983 - 1987 

Boden Conference Research Committee (Member) 1988 - 1996 

Science and Industry Forum (Member) 1990 - 1993 

Science Policy Committee (NSW) (Member) 1991 - 1994 

Australian Human Frontiers Program Entry Committee (Member) 1989 - 1990

University of Sydney 
Institute for Biomedical Research (IBR), Inaugral Committee (Chair) 1995 - 1996 

Sydney University Neuroscience (SUN), Convenor 2000- 

Brain & Mind Research Institute (BMRI), Founder 2003

Recent Editorship of Journals 
Journal of the Autonomic Nervous System (Review Editor) 1997 - 

Neuroscience News (Associate Editor) 1997 - 

Progress in Neurobiology (Associate Editor) 1997 - 

NeuroReport (Editor) 2001 - 2004

Purinergic Mechanisms (Editor) 2005 -