Like all the clergy who’ve volunteered for the Religious Orders Study, Sister Ellen’s participation will eventually take her—sort of—to a cramped lab on the west side of Chicago. It is there, to the Rush University Medical Center, that her brain will travel upon her death.
Up close, the human brain is a gray-beige mass, thick with wrinkles and folds and run through with tiny red veins. The ones that come to Rush have been harvested by an autopsy team that deploys to any of 13 states in which the participating religious orders are located. Once the organs arrive, technicians dissect the organ, creating smaller cross-sections and blocks. They take extensive measurements and notes to characterize the samples’ physical characteristics, then package and send them to research sites around the country, including Hensley’s lab at OMRF.
As a collaborating scientist in the study, Hensley is examining one particular piece of the Alzheimer’s puzzle. Specifically, he is focused on the protective role of vitamin E and other tocopherols—fat-soluble antioxidants derived from plants.
Over the years, many have hypothesized that vitamin E helps stave off Alzheimer’s. Indeed, a recent analysis of clinical data gathered from Alzheimer’s patients at Massachusetts General Hospital indicates that it may slow the decline of patients suffering from the disease. But Hensley’s work suggests that other tocopherols might do a far better job of protecting the brain from Alzheimer’s.
“Our research indicates that one particular tocopherol”—known as gamma tocopherol—“may protect the brain by lowering protein levels associated with Alzheimer’s. It seems to reduce local inflammation and free radicals in a way that vitamin E cannot.”
In his lab, Hensley is analyzing samples taken from the brains of 30 clergy members who participated in the Religious Orders Study. He is also studying 279 samples of participants’ cerebrospinal fluid, the clear liquid in which the brain “floats” inside the skull. After testing the samples’ tocopherol levels, he pairs 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.
Although preliminary, Hensley’s results have been promising. “So far, we have found decreased levels of two key tocopherols in cerebrospinal fluid from Alzheimer’s patients.” If his theory about the protective properties of these vitamins proves correct, tocopherol supplements could prove a powerful weapon in the fight to keep the aging brain healthy.