The Arts of Neuroscientists: Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D.

Caitlin Schneider
September 20, 2011

The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a nonprofit organization of more than 300 leading neuroscientists, works to advance public awareness about the progress and promise of brain research. As eminent neuroscientists, Alliance members harbor an intense passion for scientific research and progress, but many of our members also have passions outside neuroscience: Some are musicians, others visual artists, and one member even makes his own wine. This is the first of a series of conversations with Alliance members about their artistic pursuits.

Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Rudy to his friends, has a friendly way of speaking colored by the type of Boston accent one can only develop after years of living in eastern Massachusetts and fervently supporting the Red Sox. He serves as director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital as well as the head of the Alzheimer’s Genome Project, which has recently identified several potential Alzheimer’s disease (AD) genes. His early work  on the Huntington’s gene and first variants of the human genome launched his career and paved the way for his ongoing Alzheimer’s research. Amidst his stellar career and countless laboratory hours, he also has developed and maintained his musical interests, from composition to live performance.

When I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Tanzi last month, he told me that he has been playing keyboard since he was ten years old.

“A good Italian boy, I started on the accordion,” he said. “One day, my father gave me a jazz organ album by Jimmy Smith and said, ‘This is a real keyboard. But if you want to keep playing accordion, I’ll get you a monkey and a cup.’” After listening to the album, he switched to the jazz organ, which he played until his matriculation at the University of Rochester, where music courses required the piano.

“These days I play mostly piano, but I have all kinds of keyboards at home. I still have the organ, and I have synthesizers. I play at little bit of everything.”

Dr. Tanzi has a range of experience with live performance, too. “I played in bands all through high school, college, and graduate school to make extra money; even when I was working with Jim Gusella between ’80 and ’83. I was playing in a band full-time, probably getting three hours of sleep, and I like to tell the story about how we found the first twelve variants in the human genome back then.”

At the time of the discovery, Dr. Tanzi and now-fellow Alliance member James F. Gusella, Ph.D., were using bacteriophage cloning, a popular method for studying DNA. The phages were stored in a cold room that was, as he puts it, “a long walk from the lab.” One night, after an hour of sleep and playing a late show with his band, Dr. Tanzi trudged to the cold room to retrieve the phages, with instructions from Dr. Gusella to take one phage clone from each plate.

“I said, ‘Ah, he’ll never know,’” and decided to instead take all of the clones from one plate. “It turned out that I took a short cut, and that was one of the things that contributed to us finding the Huntington’s disease gene, because all of the clones came from one plate rather than twelve different plates.”

“All because you’re a musician,” I said.

“Yep, because I was a musician,” he agreed. “And I was tired.”

Dr. Tanzi considers that his entire research career is affected by two external influences. “I noticed, it was uncanny, whenever I wasn’t playing music, if I wasn’t playing the keyboard every day, even if it was just practicing, I was unlucky in the lab. And I came to realize that my whole life, the more I played music, the better things went for me in the lab. There are two things that influence my luck in the lab: One is playing music, and the other is how the Red Sox are doing. I can’t argue with it.”

Currently, Dr. Tanzi’s work involves identifying candidate genes for Alzheimer’s disease and sequencing through them to find mutations and defects. His work on Alzheimer’s began during his preparation for his Ph.D. thesis in the early 80s. After working on Huntington’s with Dr. Gusella, he focused on chromosome 21 and its potential influences on Down syndrome. When he realized that people with Down syndrome develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s in middle age, he theorized the existence of an Alzheimer’s gene on chromosome 21. His research supported his hypothesis, and in 1986 he became one of three investigators to independently discover APP, the first known Alzheimer’s gene and later the Alzheimer’s genes known as “presenilins” in 1995.

In addition to sequencing through the 100 or so AD candidate genes, which were identified with support from the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund and the NIMH, Dr. Tanzi’s lab is developing several potential drugs for Alzheimer’s, one of which (PBT2) is in clinical trials in Australia. Outside of pharmacology, he’s also seriously considered the role of music in treating the disease.

“You know, I’m very interested in music therapy,” he said. “I’m actually in the middle of discussing a book and a CD on music therapy in a collaboration with Babyface, the producer.” The idea behind the project is to provide literature and information about Alzheimer’s disease along with a CD featuring jazz music by Dr. Tanzi and classical piano by New York-based pianist Chloe Flower. He got the idea for the project after he was contacted several times by caregivers who told him that playing his music for a loved one with Alzheimer’s makes them “come alive.”

“[It] made me think that some of the jazz trio stuff I’m doing might be useful for perking up an Alzheimer’s patient.”

These days, Dr. Tanzi doesn’t have much time to play live performances, but he still does studio work. Next up is to record some sessions with Joe Perry of Aerosmith to further raise public awareness of Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Tanzi and Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the National Institutes of Health, were featured with Perry in a 2009 edition of The Rockstars of Science, an outreach effort that included photos of leading researchers with famous musicians.

“It was meant to be only ‘rockstars’ of science, but then when Joe found out that Francis and I actually play, he said, ‘Why don’t we go play together, that would be great.’ So we played together [at the Congressional Auditorium] in Washington for Alzheimer’s Day.”

Some of Dr. Tanzi’s music is posted at his MySpace, including eight songs that describe the journey of a couple when one of them is diagnosed with the disease. Each song chronicles a different step in the progression of the illness, from the first, “Notice Not,” when the couple realizes something is amiss, to the last,“You, Lovely You,” wherein the husband, who does not have Alzheimer’s, realizes he will always love his wife despite the effects of the disease on her.

The tone of resolve in the last song is very much in spirit with Dr. Tanzi’s work – the unwavering commitment to see his research through, fueled by dedication, the desire to give back, and maybe just a little bit of music.

From left, Rudy Tanzi, with Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health, in a photo from the Rockstars of Science series that first ran in GQ magazine in 2009.(Geoffrey Beene Gives Back/GQ)