Famed ‘Nun Study’ returns to U

Research will continue on Alzheimer’s thanks to nuns who donate their brains to science.

The famous AlzheimerâÄôs disease called the âÄúNun Study,âÄù which began at the University of Minnesota in 1986, has returned to Minneapolis from the University of Kentucky, where it has been since the studyâÄôs founder, David Snowdon, moved it there in 1990. The study is known for its pioneering research into long-term causes and effects of AlzheimerâÄôs and memory loss. The mental and physical health of the 678 School Sisters of Notre Dame participating in the study is tested every year to provide data on the development of the disease. When they die, their brains are studied to help determine the correlation between physical signs of AlzheimerâÄôs and life habits. The nuns make an ideal test group: they live similar lives, donâÄôt smoke, drink little, do similar jobs, live in similar places and have similar access to health care. They form a homogenous group, which is good for research. The convents also have very good records of the nunsâÄô lives, including a series of autobiographies written throughout each sisterâÄôs life, which researchers have found very useful in determining early and mid-life risk factors and behaviors. Dr. Leah Hanson, a researcher at the AlzheimerâÄôs Research Center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, said the study is important because it has identified a lot of things correlated with AlzheimerâÄôs and memory loss. âÄúA lot of our research is kind of based off the Nun Study; they showed that the nuns that did more crossword puzzles and reading were less likely to develop AlzheimerâÄôs,âÄù Hanson said. The observation led to further studies that are helping develop cause-effect relationships,âÄù Hanson said. The study is moving because SnowdonâÄôs study reached a natural endpoint and he decided to retire, University of Kentucky Vice President for Research James Tracy said. The University of Minnesota also had researchers working on the project, so both universities made proposals to the nuns and they decided on Minnesota, Tracy said. âÄúSix hundred seventy-eight nuns made gifts of themselves so that mankind can understand AlzheimerâÄôs,âÄù Tracy said. âÄúWhere itâÄôs located is less important than the gift.âÄù Because the study is funded by the National Institutes of Health , researchers at Kentucky and around the country will have access to the data, Tracy said. Mary Koppel, spokeswoman for the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Academic Health Center, said the University is in the middle of all the administrative changes right now, getting the material in place. âÄúThe great hopes are that we can have some kind of location for the study, the material and all of the information that is much more accessible, not just to researchers, but to the general public,âÄù Koppel said.