by Susan Leem, associate producer
Dr. Karen Santa Cruz of the University of Minnesota examines one of the 670 brains in the Nun’s Study, looking for signs of dementia. The brain pictured here is more than 75 years old and still looks healthy says Dr. Santa Cruz. (photo: Lorna Benson/MPR News)
Looking for a research project, David Snowdon became interested in the convent after a graduate student, a former nun, told the young epidemiologist about a retired community of nuns living out their days in Mankato, Minnesota. These women turned out to be ideal for research into aging because of their similarities in lifestyle. Snowdon didn’t know exactly what he was going to find among these nuns, but struck gold when finding their personal records in an old olive green file cabinet. The biographical essays they wrote as young women in their early 20s held clues to the way they aged over 50 years later.
"My father, Mr. L.M. Hallacher, was born in the city of Ross, County Cork, Ireland, and is now a sheet-metal worker in Eau Claire."
On the other hand, a high-scoring essay looks more complex:
"My father is an all-around man of trades, but his principal occupation is carpentry, which trade he had already begun before his marriage with my mother."
These high-scoring writers avoided dementia in their later years and performed better on other cognitive tests. Later, Dr. Snowdon pursuaded the nuns to donate their brains to science. Among the participating nuns who died, none of the high-density ideas nuns’ brains showed evidence of Alzheimer’s disease, while it was physically present in all of those with low idea density.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota now carry this research forward, trying to figure out why some of the nuns’ brains look diseased post-mortem, but before death, these women managed to live out their final days without dementia.
Another researcher in Canada has recently discovered that bilingual speakers can also stave off Alzheimer’s by a few years more than monolingual speakers.
Could there be a protective quality to maintaining your linguistic skills? Or is it that these nuns have always had a bit extra reserve of cognitive ability to weather the ravages of aging? Thankfully, this research provides more insights into questions like these as this massive longitudinal study involving over 600 nuns continues.Comments
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
When we think of historic Islamic scholars, it’s easy to think of philosophy and literature and forget the science. From February 24-26, the University of Minnesota’s program in Religious Studies held the Shared Cultural Spaces conference, which aimed to “explore the ways in which Muslim contributions to literature, arts, science, and architecture have influenced and become foundational to Western humanistic and scientific expressions.”
George Saliba, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University in New York, opened, “If you attempt to take out the Arabic influence from Renaissance science, you’d be left with a dead body.” He spoke passionately about the transmission of astronomical ideas from the Islamic world to the Western world. For example, the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy wrote about the world being a sphere rotating on an axis that did not pass through the centre. It was Arabic thinkers that later realized this was impossible and proposed a new model with a central axis, and the moon revolving around the Earth.
Dr. Saliba, amongst many scholars, argues that Copernicus had access to the documents by Islamic astronomers, specifically by Ibn al-Shatir. Copernicus is now, according to Saliba, incorrectly attributed with having discovered several astronomical models that were first discovered by Islamic scholars.
Hamid Rassoul, himself a “veteran of space science” at the Florida Institute of Technology, went on to present four important Islamic thinkers: Razi, Biruni, Sina, and Khayyam. These four thinkers had lasting influence in philosophy, medicine, music, math, and science. According to Rassoul, around the ninth century Al-Razi created the most medical volumes ever by one person. His descriptions of human physiology and illnesses, amongst his many medical findings, were translated into Latin and were used for longer than any other medical textbooks.
This conference session just touched the tip of the iceberg of how Muslim scientists brought Western science forward, and of course, continue to today. Who are the great Islamic thinkers that inspire you?Comments