Think of holiday gift giving, and the old stand-bys probably come to mind: neckties, sweaters, maybe even a fruitcake. But Sister Adrian Schmidt’s gift probably isn’t on anyone’s wish list. You see, her gift is her brain.
Schmidt is one of 1,100 nuns, priests and monks participating in the Religious Orders Study, a groundbreaking research project aimed at understanding the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The participants in the study, which is now in its 17th year, undergo annual medical and psychological examinations. And all have pledged to continue their service after they die by donating their brains to medical research.
OMRF is one of the institutions that collaborated on this project. Specifically, OMRF scientists examined whether vitamin E and other vitamins known as tocopherols can protect the brain from age-related memory loss.
“The Religious Orders Study is a fascinating idea. These clergy are a perfect control group for the study of Alzheimer’s disease because they have so much in common,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “They have similar diets. They see doctors regularly. They don’t smoke, and they consume little or no alcohol. That allows researchers to focus on the role that individual factors play in disease progression.”
After the members of the study sign up, they are given mental and physical tests annually—everything from word memorization to balance and strength—and the results are pored over by scientists. When a clergy member dies, a rapid autopsy team takes that person’s brain to a lab where it is dissected and sent to research institutions like OMRF for study.
OMRF scientists have analyzed 30 brain samples and 279 samples of participants’ cerebrospinal fluid, the clear liquid in which the brain “floats” inside the skull. They then paired the data with other information, such as whether the individual suffered from any form of dementia and whether their brain was populated with the plaques and tangles characteristic of Alzheimer’s.
The resulting research indicates that one particular antioxidant (known as gamma tocopherol) may protect the brain by lowering protein levels associated with Alzheimer’s. If this theory about the protective properties of those vitamins proves correct, tocopherol supplements could prove a powerful weapon in the fight to keep the aging brain healthy.
“This is just one of the many interesting and potentially useful findings from this study,” said Prescott.
Study researchers have also found that small, imperceptible strokes can trigger some dementia. They’ve discovered a link between weight loss and the onset of dementia. And they’ve become skilled at predicting who is most likely to suffer from the disease based on how participants expressed ideas in writing decades before Alzheimer’s onset.
“Alzheimer’s is a multi-faceted puzzle that will not be easily solved,” Prescott said. “But this study is yielding a treasure trove of information that will ultimately lead to better ways to manage and treat this terrible disease. And for that, we will have selfless research volunteers like Sister Adrian Schmidt to thank.”
Schmidt, though, shrugs off such praise. “Some people think donating your brain to science is scary,” said Schmidt, who has lost many fellow sisters to Alzheimer’s. “That’s not scary. Scary is watching your friends disappear before your eyes.”