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Rudy Tanzi: Pioneering an Alzheimer’s Cure

This 2018 Influencer in Aging's work speaks to all of us


Rudy Tanzi, a 2018 Influencer in Aging, is one of the best-known names in neuroscience in the world. He is the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, whose lab is on the forefront of discovering the causes and potential cures for Alzheimer’s Disease. In 1987 and 1995, he co-discovered early-onset familial Alzheimer’s genes, and he identified many others in his work leading the Alzheimer’s Genome Project supported by the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. He is the vice-chair of neurology and director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. Time magazine named him to its list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World three years ago. In the past year, his lab discovered the link between herpes and Alzheimer’s, published in scientific journal, Neuron. Before the year is complete, he and co-authors  will publish a breakthrough study related to neural inflammation in the top scholarly journal on exercise and neurogenesis.

But what truly differentiates Tanzi in his work as a science superstar is his ability and willingness to translate his complicated research findings to a consumer audience in a way that is accessible and actionable. In 2018, he released his third co-authored book with Deepak Chopra, The Healing Self, which followed up two bestsellers, Super Brain and Super GenesEven in publishing for a broad audience, Tanzi’s eye is still on the major goal of curing Alzheimer’s.

Next Avenue: What’s the most important discovery in the field of Alzheimer’s disease over the past several years?

Rudy Tanzi: The biggest revelations are that amyloid plaque does initiate the disease, and stopping amyloid early on should nip the disease in the bud. And that meant all kinds of changes in the field, and awards and everything else.

And now we just published a new paper in Nature Neuroscience, where we concluded the [importance of the] neural inflammation part of the disease, so now we have it fully remodeled. And what we’ve learned, in a nutshell, is that amyloid is like a match, it lights the brush fires. The brush fires are the tangles which choke the inside of the nerve cells’ soma.

The good news is you can live with lots of the tangles in your brain and not get dementia. What must happen to get dementia is you must trigger neural inflammation. That’s where the brain’s very primitive immune system is reacting to the plaques and the tangles and the brush fires. The immune system is saying, ‘There’s something wrong here in the brain.’ And so it tries to start removing entire areas of the neural network to protect the brain. So, it’s saying, ‘Oh this area has been infected, so I’m gonna just take it out.’ That’s a very draconian measure.

At that point, the neural inflammation is like the forest fire. And one thing we’ve learned is that by trying to hit the amyloid of the disease in patients who already have the disease, it’s like trying to put out a forest fire by blowing out the match.

So now we know that you have to hit the amyloid plaques a decade or so before symptoms, practicing early detection, early intervention. The future will be that you detect if you have lots of plaques in your brain, let’s say starting at 40 or 50 years old, or even earlier if you have an early onset familial history. Right now it requires brain imaging to see the plaques, but blood tests are likely to be on the way. If it looks like you’re in trouble, and you’re making more plaque than you should be at your age, then you get on drugs that stop those plaques. But you get on those drugs — just as cholesterol and statins in heart disease — a decade or so before symptoms; you don’t wait for symptoms.

What about the 5 to 6 million people nationally who currently have Alzheimer’s or dementia?

Probably upwards to 20 million people in this country have the plaques, and may be on their way to dementia but don’t yet have dementia. Not everybody who has the plaques is going to go on to dementia. But if you have plaques you’re gonna have the risk. If some day we have a safe drug that stops the plaques once you have them, you will take it. Just like not everyone with high blood cholesterol is guaranteed to go on to get congestive heart failure or a heart attack, but you don’t take the risk, right? Drugs are developed and tested that people with plaques can take to further prevent spread of the disease. My lab has an amyloid drug going into clinical trials the beginning of next year —  it’s ready to go. And then we have the other drug that’s in Europe and Asia in stage three, with hopefully some results coming over the next year.

Why have you felt compelled to speak to the general public about this research, particularly through your popular books with Deepak Chopra?

Basically because these drugs take a long time to come online. And not everybody wants to take drugs. They’d rather avoid them if they could.

So I say, ‘Hey, while we’re developing these drugs for those who really need them, how can I take everything we’ve learned about what goes wrong in Alzheimer’s to then teach how to keep everything going right, in the brain instead?’ And one of the main points in The Healing Self is the importance of self-healing. You know, take care of yourself, do everything you can to prevent disease, to keep your body and brain and mind healthy along the way. Don’t wait for it to break down and then go to the doctor.

I mean with your car, most people don’t just mistreat their car, wait for it to break down and bring it to the mechanic. They’re doing prevention all the time. They’re doing maintenance all the time. Well, your body and brain are a lot more important than your car.The Healing Self is about the idea that healing comes from the word whole, to be whole. And the word whole gives rise to the word holy, holistic and healing. So being whole means connecting body, brain and mind; being more self-aware of you as one whole being, rather than body versus brain, mind versus brain. The brain and the body in one continuum that make up the mind, that communicate all the time. In the book, we give what’s called a seven-day action plan of what you can do each day of the week that will create new habits — seven new habits, which after repeating these, week after week after week, will then lead to new programming in the brain.

So in a way, the healing comes as a combination of how you use the incredible potential of the brain as we taught in our book, Super Brain, the incredible potential of your genes, and their activity — as we taught in Super Genes — to then program yourself with habits that then program and turn your brain and genes to keep you healthy. And that’s The Healing Self.

You have played keyboards in bands and recorded with rock stars like Joe Perry from Aerosmith and Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi. Do you connect this creative work to your scientific work in any way?

Well here’s the thing: science requires creativity. Scientific discovery means you have to think out of the box, you have to be creative, you have to improvise. And music teaches you to do that.

And I think if you can keep honing your craft in the arts, whether it’s music or painting or dance or whatever, that if you force yourself to be creative and to improvise in one area of your life, it’s going to carry over to another area of your life.

I find that when I’m playing music more regularly, it’s also when my research does the best. It’s probably no coincidence that this past year has been the most successful year in my research in terms of publications and breakthroughs that I’ve had in 10 or 20 years. And this happens to be the year that I went on tour with Joe Perry for our record release of our new album, Sweetzerland Manifesto. That album came out a week after The Healing Self came out.  So this was a big music year for me, and it was a big book year. Even though those early years discovering the first Alzheimer’s genes in the ’80s and ’90s were exciting, I would say these are the most exciting years of my career right now, especially this year.  And it fully correlates with bringing out a new book and a new album.

By Shayla Thiel Stern
Shayla is the former Director of Editorial and Content for Next Avenue at Twin Cities PBS.@shayla_stern

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