A Painted Picture of Recovery

Illustrated by Neha Adari

Could art hold a potential remedy of improving conditions for neurodegenerative diseases? Many studies indicate that art and other creative outlooks such as music aid in allowing individuals with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to express themselves through artistry and innovation. A study published by Matos et al. in Future Medicine describes this convention of art therapy as “a promising prism through which to appreciate the nuanced relationship between cognition, goal-directed behavior and the changing brain in the context of neurodegenerative diseases” [5].  With this outlook, art therapy holds value as a “potent behavioral and ultimately neurochemical, intervention” with exciting potential [5]

Neurodegenerative diseases often impair an individual’s cognitive functions and processing while limiting their physical abilities. Individuals with such diseases therefore often experience involuntary, jerky movements like chorea and impairments to brain functions [2, 3]. With these given conditions, these individuals often have a hard time communicating due to the limitations of their facial and physical expressions. This can result in feelings of frustration and irritation due to the restrictions of communication and connections with others. Art therapy and other creative outlooks have been found to alleviate the conditions of these “locked-in syndromes” by decreasing the stress endured and allowing for communication and connections with others to be more manageable [2]. A research paper in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias written by researchers at the Versilia Hospital in Italy describes art as “a system of human communication arising from symbolic cognition, conveying ideas, experiences, and feelings” [4]. In addition to improving communication, art therapy is also beneficial in physical efforts through the process of making art, such as motor movements when using and holding art tools, hand-eye coordination and overall cognitive processing [2].  

Art therapy helps in this process by stimulating or recruiting activity to these different regions of the brain. Based on a neuroanatomical perspective, specific neurodegenerative diseases can present common findings in the art that is produced from art therapy. This serves as another way for these neurodegenerative diseases to be identified, given that many share similar gestures. For example, articular regions such as the frontal and anterior temporal lobes are primarily affected in the condition of frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a progressive neurodegenerative disease [4].  In specific, patients with this condition of predominantly left hemisphere dysfunction were found to primarily use muted tones and fewer details and appeared to have resonated creatively and emotionally [4]. Patients with other conditions such as dementia with Lewy bodies, a progressive disease with unknown etiology and symptoms of visual hallucinations and parkinsonism, produce simplistic and less-figured art due to their impairment of cognitive motor abilities, perception and attention [4]. Artistic tests such as the silver drawing test, free choice painting and drawing a clock are used to precisely determine the specific regions where deficits are to be found in respect to cognition and performance [1, 3]. Through different tests, visualizing the art produced by these individuals allows for another way for their conditions to be determined. These specific tests examine retention, execution and neglect and can be indicative of short-term memory loss and personality changes – two predominant signs of dementia [3].  

While it may seem that art utilizes more cognition and control for producing work, art therapy in fact aids in the stimulation of those regions in the brain. The findings of the correlation between creativity and artistic talents and neurological impairments were from a study led by Dr. Bruce L. Miller, professor of neurology and director of the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco. The study found that dementia patients, who often experience a progressive loss of language, can still utilize the visual side of their brain that is thought to have been inhibited by the verbal side [6]. While the opportunities to produce difference kinds of art through art therapy are endless, painting was found to be a visual process that stimulated the visual pathways of the brain, as well as, both hemispheres of the brain and posterior parietal lobes [3]

Art therapy holds a bright future in therapeutically improving conditions and effects faced by individuals with neurodegenerative diseases. It creates a non-judgmental and stress-free zone, thus allowing for free range of expression in a creative atmosphere. While it may certainly be no cure for neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, it can aid in brain stimulation of recurring activity in regions of the brain that have regressed. It also plays a role as a sense of accomplishment for individuals with neurodegenerative diseases and can enhance cognitive functions, communication and social behaviors [7]. Ruth Drew, director of family and information services at the Alzheimer’s Association describes the goal of art therapy as creating “good moments, good hours, and good days” with the intent of having “happy humans[8]. As concluded from a study, interventions of art therapy for older adults with a neurodegenerative disease who regularly participated yielded developmentally advanced social skills [3]. As researchers and scientists continue the advancement of cures for these neurodegenerative diseases, the results of the implementation of art therapy holds a bright outlook in creative expression. 

Edited by: Katherine Shao 
Illustrated by: Neha Adari

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