The Nun Study Returns: Important Alzheimer’s Research Continues On

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 15 June 2009

In my opinion, the Nun Study is one of the most fascinating research projects ever. I’m intrigued by almost anything that has to do with Alzheimer’s, but I was also quite interested in the whole idea of analyzing the writings of several study participants. A recent broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio (embedded below) discusses the return of the famous study to the University of Minnesota 20 years later. And although much has changed on the Alzheimer’s research landscape in the past two decades, there is still no cure, still no definitive cause, and still no meaningful treatment for the lifespan of the disease process. There is still a huge need for more Alzheimer’s research, and the Nun Study is just one of many projects in the pipeline.

Over 600 nuns donated their brains to science after their deaths, filling up what is called the brain room by scientists working on the project in Mankato, MN. (Blogger’s note: Can you imagine walking into a room full of brains?!) For neuropathologist Dr. Karen Santa Cruz, the brain room is an exciting place, where she has already observed that about half of the brains show signs of the disease, while the other half do not. She has also been intrigued by the fact that many of the brains with a lot of pathology (signs of disease) are not actually demented.

One hugely important lesson learned from the 1986 Nun Study — and from the current research being conducted in Minnesota — is this: Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. Many people can live well into their 80s, 90s, and beyond and never show signs of the disease.

Dr. Santa Cruz is joined by Dr. Kelvin Lim, who is serving as the scientific director for the project. Both doctors have accepted the torch passed on by the Nun Study founder, Dr. David Snowdon. Dr. Lim will evaluate the sisters’ handwritten essays, some of which date back to 1893, to seek more evidence that correlates brain health with early education. According to Lim, “The original research has already established a link showing that the more complex these early writings, the lower the risk of mental dysfunction and even disease or death among the sisters in the study.”

The “new” Nun Study researchers at U of M are hopeful about their work, not only in terms of getting closer to understanding why people do/don’t get Alzheimer’s during their lifetime, but also to make some discoveries about other diseases that impact the brain (Parkinson’s, stroke, etc.).

I look forward to hearing more about their progress and growing ever closer to a world without Alzheimer’s. And who knows? Maybe I’ll take a trip to Minnesota to check out the brain room…

- Michelle Seitzer


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