It’s the most ornate object in a room that is sparse by design. White walls give way to breaks and bursts of color from stained glass. Sister Adrian comes here often, treading across the burgundy carpet and past the lightly stained wooden pews to dip her fingers into the bowl of holy water.
She loves the silence, the beauty of this contemplative space. But here, her thoughts will sometimes take her to dark places.
There was no harder task than watching Alzheimer’s disease erase her friend. Hands that once shaped sculptures and planed wooden altars eventually lost the ability even to cut string. By the time Alzheimer’s ended her life, the person inside had long since vanished.
So when a man asked Sister Adrian if she’d help save others from the same fate, she didn’t think twice.
There’s one sticky detail, he said. We’re going to need your brain after you die.
“Some people think donating your brain to science is scary,” says Sister Adrian. “That’s not scary. Scary is watching your friend disappear before your eyes.”
Faith and medical research may seem like strange bedfellows. But in the quest to understand how the human brain ages, nuns have played a pivotal role.
More than two decades ago, Dr. David Snowdon, an epidemiologist at the University of Kentucky, saw that the key to Alzheimer’s research was keeping variables to a minimum. In other words, if he could find a group of people who led similar lives, then zero in on a single factor—say, their diets—he had a much better chance of determining what role that factor might play in the onset (or prevention) of Alzheimer’s. And if he could study those individuals over a long period of their lives, all the better.