It’s an exciting time in Alzheimer’s disease research at the University of Minnesota. The world-renowned Nun Study, initiated here in 1986, returned to the University in March after nearly 20 years away and is still netting key insights into Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders. And the leading-edge research conducted in the University’s N. Bud Grossman Center for Memory Research and Care continues to gain momentum as it shifts its focus to preventing Alzheimer’s altogether.
Propelling these initiatives is a recent gift of more than $1.4 million from the estate of the late Douglas Mohl that is being split between the Nun Study and the Grossman Center.
Mohl, a 1962 graduate of the University’s Institute of Technology and an avid Gopher athletics fan, died suddenly last year at age 68. Mohl’s mother was treated at the University for Alzheimer’s disease and in 1988 participated in a neurosurgery clinical trial. Douglas Mohl was so grateful for the care she received that he decided to include Alzheimer’s disease research at the University in his estate plans.
Understanding the aging brain
Mohl’s donation is already being put to good use.
“This generous gift will provide us with the resources we need as we prepare for a new and innovative study with this unique population,” says Kelvin O. Lim, M.D., director of the Nun Study and professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry. He also holds Drs. T. J. and Ella M. Arneson Land-Grant Chair in Human Behavior.
During the past two decades, about 700 nun volunteers from seven U.S. provinces of the School Sisters of Notre Dame have contributed to a better understanding of healthy brain aging via their journals, personal and medical histories, cognitive functioning tests, and dissection of their brains after death.
Researchers say the nuns are an ideal group to study because of their homogeneous and active lifestyle — many are involved in education and service well into their 90s. This is attractive to researchers because it minimizes many of the lifestyle factors they must consider in their assessments.
“What we really hope to do is expand the study and use this collection of material to understand how our cognitive capabilities change with age, irrespective of whether we get Alzheimer’s, and how our motor functions change with age,” says Harry Orr, Ph.D., director of the University’s Institute for Translational Neuroscience and holder of the Edmund Wallace Tulloch and Anna Marie Tulloch Chair in Genetics.
A focus on prevention
At the Grossman Center, director Karen Hsiao Ashe, M.D., Ph.D., and her team have made remarkable progress in understanding the underlying mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease that lead to impaired memory.
From the same laboratory that created two types of mice to study the disease — one that models the later stages of Alzheimer’s and one that models the earlier symptoms of pre-dementia — comes a new research focus: prevention.
Ashe’s lab team discovered the Aß*56 protein, which they believe triggers the chemical chain reaction leading to memory impairment, and just last year they found a new way to study both its structure and function. This paves the way for developing tools to one day measure the protein in clinical settings and could ultimately lead to early detection and prevention.
“This gift will enable the Grossman Center to pursue research collaborations with scientists at multiple institutions that will accelerate the timeline to prevention,” says Ashe, who holds the Edmund Wallace Tulloch and Anna Marie Tulloch Chairs in Neurology and Neuroscience.