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Approved research

The Beethoven Genome Project

Principal Investigator: Dr Robert Attenborough
Approved Research ID: 54169
Approval date: April 8th 2020

Lay summary

Ludwig van Beethoven is considered one of the world's most popular and influential composers, whose life and works were strongly influenced by several serious health problems. Although he left us with a rich historical record, historians have puzzled over the causes of his various illnesses. Beethoven's health problems range famously from his deafness which began in his late 20s, to severe digestive problems which persisted throughout his life, and even include social and mental health problems. Few doubt that Beethoven's health problems left their mark on his music. Many of Beethoven's most famous works, such as his Appassionata Sonata and his Eroica Symphony, originate from a period of his life which has been termed the 'Middle' or 'Heroic' Period, and are often viewed as defiant reactions to his encroaching deafness. Similarly, some of his most profound music from later in his life, composed in near total deafness, are responses to periods of such severely poor health that Beethoven believed himself at death's door. It is impossible for us to fully understand Beethoven's life and music without considering his history of poor health. Two centuries of scholarship concerning the possible causes of Beethoven's health problems provide The Beethoven Genome Project with many candidate diseases to evaluate. The root causes of many of these diseases can be found within our DNA. As geneticists are revealing to us the complex genetic underpinnings of these diseases, our ability to evaluate someone's risk for developing a certain disease is becoming more accurate. The Beethoven Genome Project pairs state-of-the-art ancient DNA methods to authenticate and efficiently analyze centuries old hair samples with cutting-edge medical genetics in order to provide us with the best possible understanding of Beethoven's health problems. Access to UK Biobank data provides a context of real-world data from diagnosed cases and healthy controls to enable far more accurate assessments of Beethoven's risk for complex genetic diseases, including bipolar disorder and Crohn's Disease. A method called 'polygenic risk scoring' is used, summing up overall genetic risk into a single score. Perhaps uniquely in the annals of biography, Beethoven requests in a famous document known as the 'Heiligenstadt Testament' that after his death, the causes of his 'disease' be analyzed and made public. It is in this spirit that The Beethoven Genome Project has been undertaken, and we hope it enriches an ever greater appreciation for his life and works.