How the Donated Brains of Nuns Are Helping to Cure this Deadly Disease


The Catholic Church and science have long been married to one another. Science historians often credit medieval Catholic mathematicians and philosophers as the founders of modern western science, and the Church has often been seen as a patron of the sciences. It’s only natural that when researchers were studying Alzheimer’s over 30 years ago, Catholic nuns were the first to answer the call for help.

31 years ago, David Snowdon began Alzheimer’s research with funding by the National Institute of Aging at the University of Minnesota. He was hopeful he could discover the mechanism behind brain deterioration with age in some people but not others. However, he faced a problem: potential study subjects had too many extraneous variables that would confound his research. In 1986, he approached the nuns of the School Sisters of Notre Dame for help, who were more than eager to help.

For Snowdon, the nuns of School Sisters of Notre Dame were the perfect study subjects. The sisters led similar lifestyles free from excessive alcohol consumption or smoking, along with living and working in the same environments and, of course, sharing a gender. The access to archived medical records in their convents gave the researchers unprecedented data about family and medical histories to work with.

The “Nun Study,” as it came to be called, started with 678 sisters across the United States. It included nuns aged 75 to 103 with varying levels of health. They agreed to annual blood work along with cognitive, physical, and medical assessments. Another condition of their participation was the donation of their brains at death to be studied.

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“One of the unique aspects of this study were the large numbers willing to donate their brain whether they had any dementia or not.” – Sister Charlene, representative for the study for the School Sisters of Notre Dame

Using the autobiography entrance essays each nun wrote when they joined their convent, Snowdon made a remarkable discovery. He discovered the linguistic complexity of each essay was a strong indicator for the development on Alzheimer’s late in life. Nuns who wrote simpler essays scored significantly lower on cognitive performance tests, while nuns with complex essays scored normally. Lab examinations of the brains of the nuns were scored lower showed signs of advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

Today, the Nun Study is still ongoing and has provided numerous discoveries that they hope will lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. A similar study, the Rush Religious Orders Study, began in 1993 to build on the success of the Nun Study. It includes over 1,350 participants from 40 separate religious orders. The larger sample size has allowed researchers to make even more impressive discoveries by noting brain characteristics over a larger population.