Professor Juggles Music, Genetics

Around 10 a.m. one morning on his way to work, Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi stopped by a music studio to hear a new Aerosmith song. By 11 a.m. that same day, the Harvard Medical School neurology professor had finished a recording session playing his Hammond organ for Aerosmith’s newest album, “Music From Another Dimension!” and was striding into his lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he serves as the Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit. A few weeks ago, the album landed at number five on the Billboard 200 chart.

The record’s success is not the only accomplishment that Tanzi is celebrating this month; he is currently jetting across the country on tour for his new book, “Super Brain,” which he co-authored with spiritual guru Deepak Chopra. The book was also adapted into a PBS TV show. The tour is taking him all over the U.S., including Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, and New York. “Super Brain” has made the New York Times Bestseller List two weeks in a row.

“It’s all about using your brain rather than allowing your brain to use you,” Tanzi said of his book.

The book offers techniques to help individuals become active observers of their brains, so that instead of passively identifying with thoughts and feelings as their brains generate them, readers can control what they think and feel.

“It is important to recognize that ‘my brain is making me feel sad,’ just like ‘my stomach makes me feel hungry,’ Tanzi explained. “When ‘real me’ observes that, I can get out of being trapped in one specific center of my brain.”

According to Tanzi and Chopra, various mental strategies can help readers overcome problems like memory loss, anxiety, depression, and obesity.

Tanzi said that every night for eleven months, he worked on the book religiously from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., when his wife and daughter were asleep. In the mornings, he was occupied with what he is best known for–his genetics research.

Tanzi said he has been researching the molecular and genetic basis of neural diseases since 1980, when he participated in an investigation that culminated in the discovery of the location of the Huntington’s disease gene. Huntington’s disease is a genetic neurodegenerative disorder with symptoms that often do not manifest themselves until an individual is 30 or 40 years old. Even in the 80s, Tanzi was devoted to striking a balance between his scientific work and creative pursuits. Days were spent at the lab bench, and nights were spent with his band.

Since then, Tanzi’s lab has been involved in the discovery of three of the four genes that are known to cause Familial Alzhemier’s Disease: the amyloid protein precursor (APP) and presenilin 1 and 2.

“He’s been an extremely good mentor over the years,” said Robert D. Moir, a neurology professor at HMS and researcher at the Genetics and Aging Research Unit of MGH. Moir has worked with Tanzi on hypotheses involving the role of beta amyloid proteins in Alzheimer’s Disease for over 20 years.

A $5.4 million donation from the Cure Alzheimer’s Foundation last month will help fund Tanzi’s lab’s search for genetic factors that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, as they sequence the whole genome of over 1500 individuals in Alzheimer’s-affected families.

Tanzi is also looking forward to collaborating with Aerosmith’s lead guitarist Joe Perry on a CD to be released in 2013, after the band concludes its tour in December. Additionally, Tanzi is planning to write a second book with Chopra focused on genetics. He said it will be similar to “Super Brain” with regards to its “science meets spirituality” flavor.

“That’s what keeps you excited about life,” Tanzi remarked of his music and writing. “When you’re doing what you love, you’re always happier.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:


An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rudolph E. Tanzi attended a recording session with Aerosmith. While Tanzi did play the Hammond organ on the band’s album, the band members were not present while he recorded his part.