The Religious Orders and Nun Studies will, no doubt, have many legacies. But perhaps the greatest contribution will be a seemingly paradoxical epiphany: that two brains that look alike don’t necessarily function alike.
As scientists examined study participants’ brains, they found numerous samples that were shot through with the physiological earmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. But when they consulted the subjects’ medical records and cognitive testing data, they discovered that many of those with the “sickest” brains did not exhibit any signs of memory loss in life. In other words, says OMRF President Steve Prescott, “just because a brain bears the telltale indicators of Alzheimer’s doesn’t mean that its owner suffered from dementia.”
To explain this perplexing result, scientists developed a theory to explain the brain’s ability to maintain function in the face of physical deterioration. They called this quality “cognitive reserve.”
As they pored over the data they’d gathered from the studies, they realized that certain behaviors correlated with maintaining brain function. Keeping physically and intellectually active, maintaining a large social network, minimizing psychological distress—all of these correlated with lower rates of dementia and memory loss. Conversely, disease risk increased for study participants who were isolated and mentally and physically inactive.
“The idea that Alzheimer’s was more than something physical that happened to the brain, that was a remarkable insight,” says Prescott. And from that insight came the best news of all—that we may have the power to protect our minds from memory loss.
Because the brain is still such a mystery, the science of the mind remains intertwined with philosophy. Where do our thoughts come from? Do we control the chemical reactions that occur in the brain, or do they control us? These questions could just as easily be posed in seminary as in a graduate course in neuroscience.
For researchers like Hensley, there is a special kinship with the nuns, priests and brothers who have made his work possible. “Scientists and clergy lead such similar lives,” he says. Both exist in worlds marked by solitude and dedication, where long periods of searching are sustained by belief and, occasionally, rewarded with epiphanies. “Science is a tool, the same as religion is a tool, for us to discover the meaning of the universe,” says Hensley.
Papers strewn across his desk, he rubs his eyes and looks again at the flood of numbers and symbols running down the pages. What does it mean? How does it fit together?
Alzheimer’s will not yield its secrets easily. But thanks to Sister Adrian, Sister Ellen and so many other holy men and women, Hensley can continue to work to crack its code. And one day, he may succeed. In the meantime, he will have faith.