Brush Strokes & Dementia

DementiaAn interesting article written by Ana Sandolu highlights the affects that brushstrokes have to help identify dementia in painters.  Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, both neurodegenerative disorders, affect millions of people in the U.S. every year. Soon some new research could improve the early detection of these illnesses because scientists may have discovered a way to predict these neurological disorders, at least in painters.

Dementia among the elderly in the U.S. is a common neurological disorder.  About 1 in 3 seniors are reported dying with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.  Another common disease is Parkinson’s disease. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports about 60,000 older people in the U.S. are diagnosed with Parkinson’s each year, but even more are thought to exist in the early stages.

All of the neurological disorders fall under the umbrella of “dementia”, when nerve cells die or no longer function property.  This results in memory loss and impaired reasoning. A way to identify neurodegenerative disease in patients before they have been formally diagnosed is published in the journal Neuropsychology.

By examining the brushstrokes in artists with neurodegenerative disease, Dr. Alex Forsythe, a psychologist from the School of Psychology of the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom and researchers, analyzed 2,092 paintings by seven famous painters.  Two of the seven artists examined had experienced Parkinson’s disease, while another two had Alzheimer’s disease. Three of the artists, Chagall, Picasso and Monet had undergone a normal aging process with no neurodegenerative diseases. The paint strokes were analyzed by applying non-traditional mathematics to the patterns known as “fractals.”  This analysis has been previously used to establish the authenticity of major works of art. There was an analysis of 23 paintings by Jackson Pollock that revealed a 100% success rate in terms of the artworks’ fractal content, as opposed to a 100% failure rate in paintings of unknown origin. This reveals the artists use unique fractal behaviors when they paint, that computers can accurately detect the patterns characteristic of famous painters.  

The artists’ brushstrokes are indicative of neurological disease.  Dr. Forsythe and her team examined different painters within different genres and the fractal patterns in their paint strokes remained comparable.  The changes in the artist’s unique fractals over time were examined in an attempt to see if they were due to normal aging or cognitive deterioration typical of neurodegenerative disease.  Psychologists have embraced for a long time that art is an effective method of improving the quality of life for those persons living with cognitive disorders.

The analysis revealed evident patterns of change in the fractal dimensions of the different painters.  These changes showed a clear demarcation between artists who had experience neurological deterioration and those who aged normally.  They hope their study will open up new avenues for future research into neurodegenerative disease to diagnose this disease in the early stages.

Dr  Fredda Branyon