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Dr. Rudy Tanzi, rock star of science

Dr. Rudy Tanzi heads Massachusetts General Hospital’s Genetics and Aging Research Unit and teaches neurology at Harvard Medical School

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Dr. Rudy Tanzi heads Massachusetts General Hospital’s Genetics and Aging Research Unit and teaches neurology at Harvard Medical School.

It was 2009 when Dr. Rudy Tanzi was asked to appear in a GQ magazine photo shoot for a campaign called “Rock Stars of Science.” The shoot, organized by the Geoffrey Beene Foundation, was aimed at raising awareness of scientific research by matching accomplished researchers with famous musicians. Tanzi, who heads Massachusetts General Hospital’s Genetics and Aging Research Unit and teaches neurology at Harvard Medical School, was paired with a fellow Bostonian, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry.

“After the shoot, I was talking to Joe, and I said that actually I play,” Tanzi said. “He said we should jam some time.”

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Three years later, Tanzi really is a rock star of science. He recorded organ tracks for Aerosmith’s just-released new album, “Music From Another Dimension!,” he co-wrote the book “Super Brain” with physician and mind-body expert Deepak Chopra, and he adapted the book into a PBS special, which he also hosts in a Carl Sagan-like manner. Both “Music From Another Dimension!” and the book “Super Brain,” which offers techniques to use your brain most effectively, went on sale this month. The book hit No. 7 on The New York Times Hardcover Advice & Misc. bestseller list, while the record debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. The television special will begin airing nationally on Saturday.

Tanzi, 54, is best known for his work on discovering genes linked to Alzheimer’s disease. He acknowledges that people may find it strange that he’s hanging out with rock stars or collaborating with Chopra, whose holistic, speculative approach to medicine and science has prompted criticism from more hard-line scientists. But both projects represent Tanzi’s longtime interests. Besides, he said, he tries not to worry too much about seeking approval, especially at this point in his career.

Billie Perry

Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and Rudy Tanzi playing in DC.

“The need for external validation sucks more energy out of you than probably anything else,” Tanzi said while seated in his Charlestown office, a space adorned with various awards for Alzheimer’s research, as well as a photo of him at the piano with his daughter. “It’s easy for me to say because I’ve already made it where I want to be academically. Would I be doing these things if I didn’t have tenure and an endowed chair? Probably not.”

Tanzi, who lives in Cohasset with his wife and daughter, has been balancing his scientific pursuits and his creative endeavors for decades. He’s been a musician since he was a boy in Rhode Island, first picking up the accordion before moving on to organ, piano, and harmonica. By 1980, he was performing in a band five nights a week while researching Huntington’s disease at Harvard during the day.

But his path to performing on the Aerosmith record didn’t really begin until the GQ photo spread.

That led Tanzi to play concerts for the Rock Stars of Science campaign with Perry and National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, who plays guitar and had also appeared in the GQ shoot. Earlier this year, Perry invited Tanzi to appear with the Joe Perry Project at Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party and on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” When working on the upcoming Aerosmith album, Perry felt the track “Something,” a slow, bluesy number, called for some of Tanzi’s Hammond B3 organ playing to start it off.

“He’s easily the best Hammond player I’d ever heard face to face,” said Perry, who sings lead vocals on “Something,” while Steven Tyler steps back to man the drums.

Perry said the work ethic Tanzi developed over years in the lab applies perfectly to music.

“Whether you feel like it or not, or feel inspired or not, you have to get in there and do the work,” Perry said. “Sometimes you don’t get anything. The only way you’re going to get it is if you keep trying, and that’s the same pattern that he does with science.”

As strange as it seems for a renowned genetic researcher to end up playing on a new album with one of rock’s all-time bands, Tanzi expects colleagues to react to his collaborations with Chopra with just as much surprise. In addition to “Super Brain,” Tanzi and Chopra have co-written a series of contributions for the San Francisco Chronicle that speculate on the idea of a conscious universe, rather than one based on random occurrences.

The two first met, Chopra said, two years ago in, of all places, the men’s room at TEDMED, a health and medicine conference in San Diego where both were speakers. Chopra was pleasantly surprised to learn that a persistent researcher like Tanzi was open to a holistic view of science.

“He’s very cautious; he has to be,” Chopra said. “I go out on a limb.”

When writing speculative pieces with Chopra, Tanzi said he wears “a very different hat” than he does when researching. Anything that’s not backed up with data, he’s careful not to state as fact, but he feels like there should be room in the scientific community for some speculation.

“For a Harvard professor and neuroscientist, it’s way out there,” Tanzi said. “But I’ve always been fascinated by how new scientific ideas come about. We’re letting our creative side manifest. We’re not making claims, we’re saying, ‘What if.’ ”

Most of “Super Brain,” Tanzi said, is backed up by supporting scientific research. He said the book is largely about controlling your brain, rather than letting it control you — learning how to overcome emotions that impede you, for example.

Deepak Chopra

Tanzi filming a show with mind-body expert Deepak Chopra (left). The two co-authored “Super Brain”.

These ideas struck TV producer Bob Marty as great subject matter for a PBS special.

“The moment I heard about Rudy and his credentials and background, his combination of performance abilities and his awesome research and academic background, I said, ‘It’s perfect,’ ” Marty said.

Chopra and Tanzi wrote the script, and when it came time to filming the special, Chopra encouraged his writing partner to host it.

“I’ve done so many PBS specials. I thought people would be exhausted,” Chopra said. “I thought Rudy would be a fresh start.”

Tanzi had lent his expertise to TV specials before, but had never anchored something like this. The producers tried to play to his strengths, letting him tell stories, explain scientific phenomena, and, of course, play the piano.

“I feel like we dragged him out of the lab and put him in front of a television camera,” said Marty. “He said yes to a lot of things he didn’t know what he was saying yes to until he got into the thick of it. . . . I don’t want to feed his ego too much, but he was the fastest study of anyone I’ve worked with.”

Despite being thrown into the host’s chair, Tanzi was just excited to share his knowledge about the brain with the world.

“You can learn how to really play it,” he said. “The brain is like a piano.”

Andrew Doerfler can be reached at
andrew.doerfler@globe.com.
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