It used to be that 678 nuns, all School Sisters of Notre Dame to be specific, noted for their dedication to their creator first and education second, used to speak with some levity about their impending deaths.
“When we die,” they'd say, “our souls go straight to God, our brains to the University of Kentucky.”
As of late last year, their brains are going elsewhere. The Nun Study, the nation's most famous investigation into Alzheimer's disease, has moved back to the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus, where it began, since study originator and UK researcher David Snowdon has decided to retire.
The study, which began in 1986, has tested these nuns repeatedly for 20 years to assess mental and physical abilities, then cross-referencing those with such things as educational or home background, even analyzing writing samples from their novitiate autobiographies, and correlating it all with evidence of a loss of brain tissue upon their death.
The strength of the study was their collective homogenous lifestyle, making them a perfect test population. The 60 that remain alive are now between 75 and 106.
Heralded by countless TV documentaries, a 2001 Time magazine cover and the subject of a best-selling book, Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives, the Nun Study captured the imagination of Americans who saw the nuns as heroines, saints who decided they would continue to teach even after their deaths. (For more information, go to nunstudy.org)
The University of Kentucky tried hard to retain the brain and tissue banks, the writings and archive records when Snowdon decided that he would apply for no more National Institutes of Health grants for his work.
But, ultimately, says UK vice president for research James W. Tracy, “the living sisters have control over the collection. The mother house of their order is in Minnesota and the work was begun there. They are closer to the collection there.”
Tracy was quick to add that the study was at “a natural stopping point. There was no follow-up where Dr. Snowdon left off here. There is nothing lost. The work, because it was all collected and funded through NIH,” is available to any qualified scientist from any qualified institution.
Dr. William R. Markesbery, director of both the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging and the Alzheimer Disease Center, says the Nun Study has so far yielded two things of great consequence.
First, “we've learned that if you have the disease and superimposed stroke, you go downhill faster. Second, if you have low linguistic ability early in life ... you are more likely to develop the disease later in life.”
Still, says Markesbery, there's this misconception that the Sanders-Brown Center will be bereft without the study.
Far from it.
“For 20 years, we've been doing work that is been much more important on the mechanisms of brain degeneration. It just hasn't caught the eye of the public.”
Just because the Nun Study is gone, “we are not out of ideas,” he says, quite emphatically.
“We have the largest prevention (of Alzheimer's) study in the world here. We have 6,500 enrolled in it. We've have 140 journal articles published last year on aging, mostly on Alzheimer's. We have our own brain bank.”
The University of Minnesota will announce its acquisition of the Nun Study in early March. Right now, both universities are sharing mutual web credit for the study. That will change in short order.
Meanwhile, there are thousands upon thousands of questions that remain about Alzheimer's. That's why the Sanders-Brown Center continues its work.
That's why the University of Minnesota will launch another study with a second, younger set of nuns drawn from the same religious order in the fall.
They'll call it Nun Study II.