Can a piece of art detect the presence of a neurodegenerative disease?

For thirty years, scientists have been interested in the effects of neurodegenerative disorders on the way works of art are approached and produced. They are looking for “artistic signatures” of these diseases of the nervous system, in short, to prove that art is a window into the brain.

However, the literature on this topic provides divergent evidence and descriptive and subjective clinical case reports, mostly based on the authors’ personal observations.

But what if it were possible to objectively and scientifically establish a tangible and obvious link between brain changes in the context of degenerative diseases and how people make artistic choices and express their creativity?

This international research team, including Dr.r Alby Richard, neurologist, researcher at the University of Montreal Hospital Center Research Center and professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of Montreal.

In addition to reviewing and evaluating previously published clinical case reports, team members studied seven neurological disorders: Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, frontotemporal and Lewy body dementia, corticobasal degeneration, aphasia, and stroke.

Outside observers (psychology students and art novices) were asked to judge several pieces of visual art created by people with this disorder, but without showing this detail. Then the judges evaluate the works according to various criteria – color balance, complexity, abstraction, symbolism, realism, emotional expressiveness, accuracy of representation, creativity, technical ability, etc.

The result? “By carefully applying specific criteria, we found patterns consistent with the neurological changes associated with the various disorders studied in the studies. However, these signals are not very strong, it is difficult to pronounce unequivocally, because art remains very subjective”, affirms D.r Richard.

But one thing is certain, changes in the way artwork is produced can tell us more about the role of the brain in artistic creation.

The relationship between creativity and the brain

Albie Richard

Credit: CHUM Research Center

Alby Richard reminds us: artistic self-expression involves several neural circuits, such as memory, emotion, perception, motivation, and reward. “These systems must be able to interact in some way to allow people to create works of art. When two or three of these systems fail due to a neurological disorder, the final artistic product will inevitably be different,” he notes.

For example, the research team’s study tells us that neural changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease lead to less realistic, less balanced, and more abstract tasks. The changes the neuroscientist attributes to “several parts of the cerebral cortex being less active in Alzheimer’s and therefore making it more difficult for people to look for more nuanced elements to influence their artistic choices.”

In the case of Parkinson’s disease, the team noted a decrease in creativity and complexity of works, with more saturated and cooler colors, along with a tendency to decrease symbolism.

“Since this disease is characterized by motor symptoms, patients can take medication to reduce tremors,” the researcher said. And we know that this drug can differently stimulate certain neural circuits that are beneficial for creativity.

A potential therapeutic agent

Knowing these patterns of each neurological disorder, would it be possible for healthcare professionals to make a diagnosis just by looking at one piece? “It would be great to discover artistic markers specific to the onset of neurological disease, but unfortunately, due to the many variables, I don’t believe we’re at that point in terms of knowledge” Dr Richard.

However, the neuroscientist believes that the results of this study may allow us to more accurately determine which areas of the brain are affected by the already diagnosed disease. Therefore, these samples can be scales to determine whether a person should start treatment or participate in a clinical study.

Alby Richard adds that the data could also be useful for therapeutic purposes, “using art and creative projects to stimulate disease-damaged circuits and perhaps achieve therapeutic neuroplasticity.”

A promising non-invasive avenue that particularly excites neurologists. The doctor is well aware of the reality of patients who have to live with the lack of treatment for neurodegenerative diseases.

Posted in Art

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