Nun Study returns to Minnesota, where scientists plan to research Alzheimer's, dementia

Mar 25, 2009 By Maura Lerner

Last fall, scientists from the University of Minnesota returned from Kentucky with some 600 preserved brains and 439 boxes filled with memories. That's how the world-famous Nun Study of Alzheimer's disease came home to Minnesota, where it first began.

Dr. Kelvin Lim, the project's new lead scientist, knew it was a historic moment. But for him, nothing compared with meeting the nuns who are still alive. Now in their 90s or older, they've been part of this unique research project for more than 20 years. And even as their numbers have dwindled, he discovered, their commitment has not. As one sister recently told him: "This allows me an opportunity to teach even after I die."

Over the past two decades, the landmark study has led to a best-selling book, "Aging with Grace," and several important research findings: that those with well-developed early in life were less likely to develop later on, and that those with optimistic outlooks lived longer.

On Wednesday, the University of Minnesota is formally announcing the project's return from the University of Kentucky, where it wound up when the previous director took a new job, and a plan to breathe new life into the study with a sequel -- "Nun Study II" -- to study a fresh wave of recruits.

In a sense, the study has come full circle since it began, in 1986, with volunteers from a religious order in Mankato, the School . Since then, it has made headlines around the world with insights on how lifestyle and personality traits are linked to people's risk of dementia.

"It's always been their mission to teach," Lim said of the Sisters of Notre Dame. "They view this science, and their contribution to science, as another way to teach others about aging, about dementia, about life."

Originally, more than 600 from across the country volunteered to let a former University of Minnesota scientist, Dr. David Snowdon, study them for clues to how aging affects the brain. Today, only 52 of the original volunteers are still alive, including six retired nuns in Mankato ages 93 to 102.

They turned their lives into open books and took batteries of tests.

As a final gesture, all agreed to donate their brains to science.

They were considered an ideal study group because they had so much in common: diet, lifestyles, backgrounds. By studying which ones went on to develop dementia, Snowdon hoped to learn what risk factors may be at play.

By the time Snowdon announced his retirement last year, he had amassed an extraordinary archive on the women's lives -- including baptismal certificates, autobiographical essays, family photos and MRI scans.

To scientists, it was "a gold mine," Lim said.

Today, the brains are carefully stored at one end of the University of Minnesota Medical School, the boxes of documents in another, in a climate-controlled chamber of the medical library.

In all, roughly half of the nuns developed some form of dementia by the time they died, says Dr. Karen SantaCruz, a University of Minnesota pathologist who is in charge of studying their brains.

Intriguingly, she says, about a dozen had signs of Alzheimer's in their brain tissue but no sign of dementia while they were alive. "It would be great if we could find something from that subset that might help protect people," she said.

Now, her team is painstakingly scanning thousands of tissue samples onto computers, so they can be studied by scientists anywhere in the world.

Professor Harry Orr, who is overseeing the study, says the next phase will be a higher-tech version of the first study, using genetic tests and high-tech imaging to study how the brain ages. Of course, that depends on the willingness of other nuns to volunteer.

That probably won't be a problem, says Sister Catherine Bertrand, provincial leader of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato. "My guess is there would be some folks who really would be interested," she said, adding that the nuns are "very proud" of the study.

"If we can contribute in some small way to the cure of something like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's ... we would certainly want to be a part of that," she said.

Lim, the scientific director, calls it a tremendous responsibility. "The sisters asked me, so what are you going to do next?" he recalled. "I said we're thinking really hard." And, he added, "Please pray for us."

___

ON THE WEB

Information about the Nun Study can be found at www.healthstudies.umn.edu/nunstudy .

___

(c) 2009, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Visit the Star Tribune Web edition on the World Wide Web at www.startribune.com
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Explore further: Growing a blood vessel in a week

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Tooth loss, dementia may be linked

Oct 10, 2007

Tooth loss may predict the development of dementia late in life, according to research published in the October issue of The Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA).

Study questions accuracy of mortality statistics

Dec 10, 2008

Deaths due to dementia and Alzheimer's disease are underreported on death certificates, according to a study conducted by Hebrew SeniorLife's Institute for Aging Research (IFAR), raising concerns about the accuracy of mortality ...

Physical frailty may be linked to Alzheimer's disease

Aug 11, 2008

Physical frailty, which is common in older persons, may be related to Alzheimer's disease pathology, according to a study published in the August 12, 2008, issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neu ...

Researchers find parental dementia may lead

Feb 19, 2009

People who have parents diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or dementia perform less well on formal memory testing when compared to people of the same age whose parents never developed Alzheimer's disease or other dementia. ...

Low childhood IQ linked to type of dementia

Jun 26, 2008

Children with lower IQs are more likely decades later to develop vascular dementia than children with high IQs, according to research published in the June 25, 2008, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the ...

Recommended for you

Growing a blood vessel in a week

Oct 24, 2014

The technology for creating new tissues from stem cells has taken a giant leap forward. Three tablespoons of blood are all that is needed to grow a brand new blood vessel in just seven days. This is shown ...

Testing time for stem cells

Oct 24, 2014

DefiniGEN is one of the first commercial opportunities to arise from Cambridge's expertise in stem cell research. Here, we look at some of the fundamental research that enables it to supply liver and pancreatic ...

Team finds key signaling pathway in cause of preeclampsia

Oct 23, 2014

A team of researchers led by a Wayne State University School of Medicine associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology has published findings that provide novel insight into the cause of preeclampsia, the leading cause ...

Rapid test to diagnose severe sepsis

Oct 23, 2014

A new test, developed by University of British Columbia researchers, could help physicians predict within an hour if a patient will develop severe sepsis so they can begin treatment immediately.

User comments : 0