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Alzheimer's Nun Study returns to U of M

About 700 nun volunteers have contributed to the brain aging study-now back at the University of Minnesota-over the past two decades. (Photo: Ruth Jackson, courtesy of School Sisters of Notre Dame)

After nearly 20 years, the world-renowned Nun Study that has netted key insights regarding Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders has returned to the University of Minnesota.

The study, which David Snowdon, Ph.D. started at the University, in 1986, was moved to the University of Kentucky four years later, after Snowdon took a job there. He recently announced his retirement, and the sisters again chose the University of Minnesota as the study’s home.

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 Institute for Translational Neuroscience and director of the study.

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