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The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a nonprofit organization of more than 300 leading neuroscientists, works to advance public awareness about the progress and promise of brain research. As eminent neuroscientists, Alliance members harbor an intense passion for scientific research and progress, but many of our members also have passions outside neuroscience. This is the third in a series of conversations with Alliance members about their artistic pursuits.
Nicolas Bazan has enough pursuits outside of the lab to warrant an entire series of “The Arts of Neuroscientists.” Bazan has his hand in music, literature, and culinary endeavors, turning hobbies into successful business ventures. Despite spending almost all of his time leading the neuroscience lab at LSU’s School of Medicine in New Orleans, Bazan somehow found time to write a book, create a wine, and deepen his connection to music.
Bazan’s passion for music started as a young boy in Argentina, when his aunt would walk him to his piano lessons. On the way to one of these lessons, his aunt suffered a grand mal seizure in the middle of the street. It was a traumatic experience for Bazan. “The seizure turned her brain against her body, which turned my aunt into a different person in her last moments. It was like watching a movie in a language I didn’t understand. I saw things that made no sense to my six-year-old self, and I was just frozen in place while they happened. After that I refused to take piano lessons. I completely switched off that part of me, because I couldn’t bear to think about what happened to my aunt.”
In a way, though, Bazan constantly thought about what had happened. Even if he didn’t make the connection at the time, Bazan enrolled in medical school in Argentina partly to untangle mysteries about the brain. After his training in his first laboratory in Toronto at the age of 26, he discovered unique neurochemical changes in the brain at the onset of experimental seizures and stroke. “It’s almost like I was doing the work for my aunt or people like her,” Bazan now says of his research. “I found that I could turn that switch back on to music, literature, and art.”
For some people, that might mean listening to old records or taking up an instrument. For Bazan, it meant writing a novel that connects music and neuroscience: Una Vida: a Fable of Music and the Mind (published in 2009). “It’s about a New Orleans street singer with Alzheimer’s who crosses paths with a neuroscientist on a personal quest of discovery. I tried to write about the sad but beautiful way that a person with so much music and talent in her soul would see the world once affected by Alzheimer’s.”
Bazan moved to New Orleans in 1981 and was immediately captivated by the culture, particularly jazz, a form of music he had always treasured. “Music is everywhere in this city, and so it’s also a part of me,” Bazan says. It is clear that the main character in his book, Dr. Alvaro Cruz, shares Bazan’s passion to conquer Alzheimer’s through research. The novel, which reflects Bazan’s deep knowledge of the history of jazz, has received much critical acclaim, and a film adaptation is in the works. “As suggested by Yadi Dudai at the Weizmann Institute, I feel that movies, more than other art forms, activate specific brain circuits linked to mental and emotional time travel as well as memory systems, all of which enhance the human experience,” said Bazan, who co-wrote the screenplay.
Bazan, who sits on the board of the New Orleans Opera, is collaborating with legendary opera singer Maestro Placido Domingo for a fundraiser during the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, held this year in New Orleans. To benefit Bazan’s lab, Domingo will lead the fundraiser at noon Saturday, Oct. 13, the 50th anniversary of Domingo’s first New Orleans performance.
Bazan is currently a Senate Member of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases; he understands the toll Alzheimer’s can take not just on those with the disease but also on caretakers and the economy. He is particularly interested in NPD1, a protective mediator made in the brain on demand after injury or at the onset of seizures or neurodegenerations. He and his colleagues discovered NPD1 in 2004 and coined the term neuroprotectin D1. In 2005, Bazan discovered that this mediator is diminished by a factor of 25 in the brains of people with early Alzheimer’s.
Bazan made a connection between this protective chemical and the anti-oxidants in wine. Dissatisfied with the amount of antioxidants in most wines, Bazan joined forces with a winemaker in Oregon, Dr. Mark Wahle, to create several pinot noirs (one is named Haydee, after Bazan’s wife, others are Una Vida, Mis Hijos and Mis Nietos) with increased levels of antioxidants. “It’s a wonderful mix of science and culture,” Bazan says of his creation, though he may as well have been talking about his entire life.
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