Updated: May 29, 2020
Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D., insists he’s not one of the most influential people in the world, but that may be one of the few things he’s wrong about.
In 2015, Tanzi, the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and the vice-chair of Massachusetts General Hospital Neurology Department, landed on Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list for his work in Alzheimer’s research.
Tanzi created something that has been nicknamed “Alzheimer’s in a dish.” It is basically human brain cells that can be grown in a petri dish and develop Alzheimer’s in five weeks. This allows researchers to study the development of Alzheimer’s without relying on mice models, which are imperfect, or human subjects, which takes a lifetime.
For Tanzi, a vegetarian, not using nearly as many mice to do this groundbreaking work is a huge bonus. Tanzi, who has discovered gene mutations that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, also directs the Alzheimer’s Genome Project for the research foundation Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. And he’s involved in clinical trials that are looking at new ways to treat Alzheimer’s early on, before the disease takes hold. The most interesting thing happening in Tanzi’s lab these days, though, might be that he’s mapping the microbiome of the brain—and studying how it changes with age and Alzheimer’s. (It turns out that there are bacteria, fungi, and viruses in your brain, not entirely unlike the microbiome in your gut.)
Tanzi has also cowritten three books with Dr. Deepak Chopra about optimizing health: Super Brain, Super Genes, and, most recently, The Healing Self. At the heart of his work is a drive to answer the possibly unanswerable: How do we maximize the potential of our mind and body? Tanzi has done more to steer this conversation than most. His work has reshaped the way we think of longevity, how we protect ourselves against inflammation, and even how we can potentially rewire our brain to change the way we see the world.
A Q&A with Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D.
Why do we heal more slowly as we get older?
The number one thing that goes wrong as we age is inflammation.
Inflammation is part of the body’s immune system; it’s meant to protect you. If you have an infection or an injury, like a sprain, inflammation helps destroy and remove the damaged tissue. In the case of the brain, if you’re starting to accumulate the pathology that causes Alzheimer’s disease—which happens in just about everybody after a certain age—certain bundles of nerve cells start dying, and the brain responds with inflammation to clean out that area.
But with chronic inflammation, tissue from organs all over the body is constantly being removed, and that eventually leads to lesser functioning of those organs. Inflammation is wear and tear on our entire bodies: our joints, knees, elbows, even our brains. Every single tissue and organ starts to wear down based on too much usage. I play basketball twice a week and my knees are gone—I have to wear braces. What makes my knees hurt? Inflammation.
Can you proof the body against inflammation or aging?
If you want to age well, especially in your brain, you have to do things in your life—and we’ll cover what those are—to stave off the effects of inflammation. You can do this by 1) stopping some of the inflammation itself, 2) protecting cells against the damage that inflammation causes, and 3) giving cells more energy.
“What we’re learning now is not only how to stop the inflammation and turn it down but also how to protect our cells, how to give them bulletproof vests against the free radicals that are produced during inflammation and cause oxidative stress.”
The Healing Self can give you a plan for your lifestyle to limit inflammation in the body and brain. I use the acronym SHIELD: sleep, handle stress, interact with others, exercise, learn new things, diet. Taking care of your gut microbiome is important—eat a Mediterranean-style diet and get lots of fiber and probiotics.
What we’re learning now is not only how to stop the inflammation and turn it down but also how to protect our cells, how to give them bulletproof vests against the free radicals that are produced during inflammation and cause oxidative stress. All over your body, as you get older, inflammation starts to take its toll; cells lose energy and they die. Part of making cells healthier is bringing them more energy by ramping up mitochondria—the parts of the cell that give it energy.
In my lab, we do that with therapies involving conventional drugs and bioelectronic therapies involving current and magnetic ultrasound, and we also use natural products from all over the world. We try to take every shot we can to revitalize cells in the face of age-related inflammation.
What supplements are most helpful?
The main Ayurvedic herb I work with is ashwagandha. It’s a root that has traditionally been chewed and was meant to stave off senility that came with age. In Sanskrit, “ashwagandha” means “sweat of the horse”; the herb was so named because it smells really bad. So when you chew it, it’s helping your brain but you have terrible breath. You can now buy capsules of ashwagandha from places like Douglas Labs. We’ve found that ashwagandha helps get amyloid plaques—which trigger Alzheimer’s disease—out of the brain.
I take ashwagandha myself, as well as the supplement cat’s-claw, which is from a vine that comes from Peru and looks like a cat’s claw. It helps dissolve the amyloid plaques and the tangles, which are the other pathology of Alzheimer’s that starts early on. Cat’s-claw also helps reduce inflammation in the brain. I cofounded a company called Cognitive Clarity; we make a product called Percepta with a concentrated cat’s-claw extract and oolong tea extract.
The most important thing as we get older is to boost cellular energy. For that purpose, I use and recommend nicotinamide riboside, or TRU NIAGEN produced by Chromadex. TRU NIAGEN is the form of vitamin B3 that Charlie Brenner found to be so essential to replenishing energy at the cellular level. Think about getting older as our battery starting to run out. In this case, the battery is in each and every cell—it’s the mitochondria. You can try to hit all the pathologies of aging, like inflammation, with lifestyle. But there’s no clear lifestyle way to hit energy, other than replenishing some of the natural molecules in the body that help provide energy.
I have to mention some conflicts of interest: I’m on the scientific advisory board at, and I have equity in, the company Chromadex, which makes TRU NIAGEN. I’m also on the advisory board of and have equity in Cognitive Clarity, the company that sells Percepta. As far as ashwagandha goes, I’m clean—I have no equity or conflict of interest in a company selling this product.
A lot of your work focuses on maximizing the brain’s potential at every age. What’s the key?
In Superbrain, Deepak and I emphasize that your brain is an organ that works for you. That might sound weird, but what I mean is that your brain is bringing you sensations that need to be interpreted. Whenever we have a sensory experience of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling something, we have to put it in context of what we already know in order to make sense of it. To do this, you use brain synapses you’ve already formed, based on experiences you’ve already had, all driven by the choices you’ve already made. So the choices you’ve made in the past create the experiences you have now. The choices you make from today forward determine the experiences that will determine who you are in the future.
We like to say that the real you is that entity that’s using the brain. You’re using the brain as it’s bringing you these sensations and images, memories, feelings, and thoughts. In effect, your brain brings you your world. But you have the power to determine the world your brain brings you.
“The mistake that will make you miserable is to identify with the information being made available to your mind.”
As soon as you make that leap of understanding, you realize that when someone does something bad to you and makes you sad or angry, the last thing in the world you should do is say, “I am angry” or “I am sad.” When you see a red car go by, your brain brings you the image of a red car, but you don’t say, “I am a red car.” You say, “I see a red car.” Same thing: If that red car then runs through a puddle and soaks you, your brain brings you the feeling of anger. That doesn’t mean you “are” angry.
I call it mountaintop consciousness: You’re sitting on a mountaintop, observing what the brain is doing—using your brain, rather than having your brain use you. The mistake that will make you miserable is to identify with the information being made available to your mind.
So can you control your brain?
You’re not going to control your brain. You have to treat your brain like a little kid. If you try to control the brain, it’s going to do whatever it wants. We like to say that resistance leads to persistence. Rather than resist, rewire. If you want to change a bad habit, or if you want to jump the groove on something you’re obsessing about or you’re anxious about in the future, you need to consciously separate and watch your brain and focus on rewiring the brain rather than resisting.
The process of rewiring is called neuroplasticity. You have 100 billion neurons making tens or hundreds of trillions of connections called synapses, which create your neural network. Some are automatic and allow you to breathe and your heart to beat, but others determine your thoughts, feelings, imagination, how you recall memories. That’s where you have power to say: I’m going to navigate what I want my brain to bring me at this moment. Maybe someone just ran through a puddle and made me angry. Well, I’m not angry; I’m realizing that my brain made me feel anger. Evolutionarily, this helps me to survive so I avoid the car hitting me.
“You have to treat your brain like a little kid. If you try to control the brain, it’s going to do whatever it wants.”
Your brain is helping you to survive. But once you become the user of your brain rather than letting it use you, you’re not just giving in to instincts and urges. When you start using the brain and observing what it’s doing, you allow more regions of the brain to connect together, and that allows the brain to work better. Since the brain brings you the entire world, the world it brings you is better. And so you live in a better world.
Does this brain rewiring have the potential to affect your genes or epigenetics?
Once you use your neuroplasticity and you rewire to change a habit, your genes tend to follow suit. Deepak and I wrote about this in Super Genes: Your gene activity—your 23,000 genes firing—is called gene expression pattern. As a thermostat controls temperature, genes can be turned up and down. Depending on the habits you have, you have whole programs of gene expression.
So if you’re eating a junk food diet, if you’re constantly stressed, if you’re not getting any sleep or exercise, you are undergoing inflammation all the time. Your gene expression is programmed to constantly take care of you by destroying all that tissue you’re damaging with junk food, by not getting enough sleep, and so on. Inflammation becomes a way of life. If you take sixty to seventy days to achieve a new habit, rewiring by neuroplasticity, not resisting but proactively rewiring—saying, “I’m going to do something new”—your genes follow suit.
This is epigenetics, meaning how your gene activity is programmed. Your gene expression gets reprogrammed by a new habit and makes that habit autopilot. For example, if you take sixty to seventy days to change your diet, your gene expression programs are now wired for that new habit. And you’ll be uninterested in a high-sugar, high-fat junk meal.
How do you contextualize the mind versus the brain? Do you see consciousness coming into play?
The mind is where you live. The brain connects to the mind as every single day, in our waking state, we are bringing in sensory information to be interpreted. Consciousness is the process of being aware of what’s going on in your own mind as your brain brings it to you and being aware of the experiences you are having as a result. These experiences will then condition your next choices. If you’re unaware of this, your next choices are going to be driven by the oldest parts of the brain. They’re the bullies in the locker room; the instinctive brain, the brain stem, cares about only four things: fight, flight, food, and reproduction.
“You have choice only when you have awareness of your instincts, fears, and desires.”
If you are being dominated by your instinctive brain and letting it determine your desires and your fears, then you’re going to be conditioned by your subconscious to never make a real choice out of free will. You have choice only when you have awareness of your instincts, fears, and desires. Fear is simply the anticipation of pain or punishment from any bad experience you’ve had since the time you were an infant, and it can be cued up by certain experiences. Likewise, desire is nothing more than the memory of pleasure or reward. Every time you have something that was good, you’re conditioned to want it again. That creates desire. Fear and desire, when projected into the future, create anxiety. Fear and desire, when projected into past experiences, create obsession.
How do we get better at using our brain as opposed to letting it use us?
The key to dealing with all this is: Live in the moment. Be aware of what your brain brings you right now. Don’t try to control it, but simply be an observer of what your brain is doing. That way you’re always retaining the free will to make choices to determine the next experiences that will determine who you are in the future.
How do you stay in the moment? Meditation?
In some ways, I’m meditating all the time. Over the last twenty or thirty years, I’ve worked very hard to eliminate all internal dialogue from my head. We use words for communication and to describe our world, but I go out of my way to avoid living a life that’s controlled or influenced by reiterating words in my head. Some people live their entire lives just regurgitating sounds in their head, but the world is more than this.
People ask me, “What if you have to give a talk?” Everything I do, from science to music to writing books, I avoid having words in my head. That allows me to be aware and stay in the moment. If you’re educated or prepared for what you’re doing, you let the words come out. You use your imagination. You experience the images. You choose an emotion. You pick a memory. I think this is where true creativity comes from, when it’s nonderivative and you’re not preprocessing it with words in advance. Creativity, even writing fiction, is still based on memories you have, shuffled and cycled into memories you didn’t experience, using the components of your memories that you did experience. That’s what happens in dreams every night. It’s what allows us to have something new all the time. It allows us not be automatons and robots and zombies.
“We use words for communication and to describe our world, but I go out of my way to avoid living a life that’s controlled or influenced by reiterating words in my head.”
What looks promising in your current research on the brain?
We’ve been thinking about low-grade infections in brain. The brain has bacteria and viruses and fungi in it; we used to think it was sterile, but we’re learning that as we get older, the bacteria and viruses, even yeast, that live in the brain change.
“You’ve heard of the gut microbiome. Now we’re mapping the microbiome of the brain.”
We never knew why the plaques that trigger Alzheimer’s disease form in the brain. The big discovery we’ve made in my lab over the last few years is that these plaques are forming to fight infection. They are not just junk. They are actually being made in the brain to stave off infection from bacteria, viruses, and yeast.
You’ve heard of the gut microbiome. Now we’re mapping the microbiome of the brain. It’s the same type of mapping of bacterial species that you would do for a gut microbiome. We’re looking at brains from unfortunate young people who died, as well as middle-aged, elderly, and Alzheimer’s brains. We’ve mapped sixty brains so far, and we’re seeing that the bacterial and viral and fungal content of the brain changes dramatically, even in healthy people, from when they’re between twenty and forty to when they’re between forty and sixty to when they’re sixty and over. And then in Alzheimer’s it changes even more. There is less beneficial bacteria. We see there are specific infections in the brain that may be triggering plaques and then triggering Alzheimer’s disease. It’s an ongoing story, but we’re feeling that infection plays a big role in Alzheimer’s.
How does the brain microbiome compare with the microbiome in the gut?
The brain microbiome is analogous to the gut microbiome. If you’re not getting enough sleep or exercise, or you’re stressed out or lonely even—all of these things affect the gut microbiome. Microbial imbalance is called dysbiosis. Your microbiome is connected to your brain and controls inflammation in the brain. You can change inflammation in the brain of a mouse by changing its gut microbiome. We’ve written two papers in the last year in which we discuss that when we changed the gut microbiome of an Alzheimer’s mouse, we were able to reduce the number of plaques in the brain.
So there’s a microbiome in the gut that affects the brain. And there’s a microbiome in the brain that also affects brain pathology. Every time we underestimate the role of bacteria in our body, we’re not paying close enough attention. The bacteria that live in our body, in our gut, are largely helpful—they’re something we couldn’t live without. We’re starting to learn that in our brain it’s the same thing. They may be helpful, and as we get older, helpful bacteria may get replaced by bacteria that are detrimental.
All of this is very new, but it seems to be driving the first pathology of Alzheimer’s.
Do the same factors cause imbalances in the brain microbiome as in the gut microbiome? Or are imbalances in the brain microbiome more age-related?
It’s age-related. We’re seeing the brain has its own microbiome that’s healthy in the beginning of life and becomes less healthy with age and even less healthy with Alzheimer’s. Just the fact that we have a brain microbiome, which we learned only over the past two years, is blowing our minds. We’re still trying to find out how it works and how we might be able to affect the brain microbiome. Could it be that diet and how it affects our gut microbiome, or the supplements we take and how they affect our cellular energy and inflammation, are directly affecting the brain microbiome? These are all the connections we’re trying to make now.
In the meantime, the good things you can do for your gut microbiome—like the acronym SHIELD and the seven-day plan you’ll find in The Healing Self—are all aimed at reducing inflammation. This is good for the brain, too.
Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., is the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and the vice-chair of Massachusetts General Hospital Neurology Department. Tanzi is also the director of Mass General’s Genetics and Aging Research Unit and directs the Alzheimer’s Genome Project, funded by the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. He’s published more than 500 scientific papers and cowritten three bestselling books with Dr. Deepak Chopra: Super Brain, Super Genes, and The Healing Self.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and they are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.
Article submitted by Mary Coupland