August 26th, 2011
11:02 AM ET
As world-class doctors mingled with entrepreneurs and technology innovators at the last TEDMED conference, beautiful piano music filled the ballroom during a snack break. I assumed TEDMED had hired a professional pianist to entertain us, but I realized my error when I got closer to the source: It was renowned Alzheimer's researcher Rudolph Tanzi trying out the shiny red instrument for fun. I also took a turn, but was quickly outdone - the piano's proprietor came over to say he mistook Tanzi's playing for Elton John's.
Tanzi leads the Alzheimer's Genome Project, a groundbreaking initiative in collaboration with the Cure Alzheimer's Fund that is dedicated to finding genes associated with Alzheimer's disease. Once scientists identify what's going wrong with those genes in people who have the condition, they can work toward developing drugs that may repair the damage. "The idea is fix what’s broken," Tanzi said.
Beginning with an accordion at age 9, Tanzi has always loved playing music, and that passion isn't entirely separate from the work that he does on neurological conditions. In fact, right now he's working on a book about music therapy for Alzheimer's disease - more details will follow when it's further along.
Tanzi is composing and practicing music all the time, which he says helps his research. It keeps his mind clear and free to come up with new ideas that can be tested in the lab later.
"For me, music is just an integral part of keeping my mind in the right state for doing science that’s hopefully novel and creative and out of the box and not simply derivative," he said.
One focus of Tanzi's group is examining genes associated with the brain's immune system. This system is designed to help you in the event of trauma (such as concussion or stroke) or infection, but too much activity in the brain's immune system can damage neurons, too. It seems that this system's activity influences the buildup of beta-amyloid, the main ingredient of plaques seen in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. The current goal is to develop drugs that could prevent this accumulation of beta-amyloid. Like cholesterol, beta-amyloid serves a purpose, but too much buildup is bad. The drugs in development "could be the statins of Alzheimer’s," Tanzi explains.
A drug with a different mechanism that Tanzi's group influenced is now in clinical trials. That one is designed to prevent the copper and zinc from binding to beta-amyloid, which would redistribute these metals in the brain and therefore reduce the brain plaque buildup associated with Alzheimer's. The drug is being tested by Prana Biotechnology, an Australian company that began in Tanzi's lab; evidence from phase II clinical trials suggests it may help cognitive function in patients, but further study is needed to say for sure.
Tanzi is also exploring a possible association between a commonly used anesthetic called isoflurane and Alzheimer's. In mice, experiments have found that this chemical increases the production of beta-amyloid; whether this is also the case in humans is the subject of further exploration.
Having read other research that carnivores in the animal kingdom appear more likely to show Alzheimer's pathology than herbivores, Tanzi is a vegetarian. There's no new study on the subject, but existing evidence suggests there may be a connection, at least among animals. And in humans, the Mediterranean diet, which is low in red meat and high in vegetable content, has been associated with lower Alzheimer's risk in several studies.
TEDMED took Tanzi in an even more unexpected direction. Deepak Chopra, another presenter, happened to see Tanzi's presentation on Alzheimer's disease, and Tanzi saw Chopra's talk about spirituality, consciousness and well-being. The two met up and realized they could combine intellectual forces to write a book together. It's going to be about "how to optimize the use of your brain to elevate both your levels of consciousness and cognition," Tanzi says.
From around the web
About this blog
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.