The double line of cars waiting to valet at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health stretched all the way down to the street entrance. Guests stopped for a glass of wine or canapé before filing into the curvy morphed atrium for the center’s first-ever public lecture, on the role of art in the brains of patients with brain disease, held on May 31.
It turns out that the frightening conditions of Alzheimer’s disease — which causes short and long-term memory loss — and frontotemporal disorders (FTD) — which is responsible for loss of language and speech — often have a creative silver lining. While some skills in the brain diminish, other new, expression-related skills are unlocked as the brain reroutes functions to compensate.
“My patients developed a new interest in art, and in some cases began producing amazing art,” said Dr. Bruce Miller, professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco. “The theme has been in patients with FTD, especially when the disease hits the language side of the brain … the left side, we call this a progressive aphasia, [and] they develop new artistic ability.”
In some cases, the patient’s perception of both music and art are enhanced. Dr. Miller told the tale of his patient, Anne Adams, a brilliant biologist, who rather suddenly at age 46 decided to quit science and become a full-time artist. In the early stages of Nomfundo Aphasia (loss of the ability to articulate ideas or words), her interest in art was suddenly rekindled, and she began painting houses and churches, and grew increasingly abstract in her depiction of cellular forms, strawberry planetoids and more. She developed an obsession with Maurice Ravel's composition “Bolero” and created a visual map of each note, the brightly colored pennant shapes growing longer and wider as the volume of the song increases; she titled the piece “Unraveling Bolero.” Ironically, Ravel wrote “Bolero,” during the onset of the same disease.
Dr. Daniel Potts, a doctor of neurology at the University of Alabama, discussed how making art allows patients with Alzheimer’s to continue to connect in a different way with their personal identity and recollections, despite the memory loss they experience from the disease.
“Art enabled my father, Lester Potts, who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, to express himself when he could perhaps not express himself in any other way,” he explained. “In 2002, Dad started attending an Alzheimer’s care facility … low and behold, the old saw miller, who had never drawn a picture in his life, became a watercolor artist. This had marvelous affects on Dad. His depression got better. His cognition got a little better. He seemed to stabilize in many ways. It bolstered his sense of self and confidence.”
The memories Lester Potts could no longer verbalize or access through normal channels came out in his watercolors. The paintings contained trees, the concentric circles of wood grain and crosscut saws for lumber chopping, all coming from from submerged experiences of his old job working at a sawmill. An image of two men sawing a tree brought up the forgotten memory of an old friend. A favorite hobby of building birdhouses resulted in images patterned with the silhouettes of small houses.
Dr. Potts later said that while disease doesn’t always result in increased artistic ability, it has been known to profoundly impact the career and style of many well-known artists.
“There have been some previously proficient artists that have lost the ability to paint when they got the disease,” he commented. “[But sometimes] the art becomes progressively aesthetically pleasing with the progression of the disease.” And in some cases the artist’s best work — like, as some critics believe, in the case of Dutch abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning — may have occurred after the onset of the disease. “[De Kooning] was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in his late 80s, [and] painted more than 300 of his best works, according to art critics, after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease,” continued Potts.
Other well-known artists discussed that are known to have suffered from Alzheimer’s included Carolus Horn and William Untermohlen. The artistic changes caused by the disease can be observed is the slowly decreasing precision and increasingly vivid colors in Horn’s Venetian bridge paintings, or Untermohlen's progressively abstract self-portraits.
Friday's panel discussion ended with emphasis placed on continuing art therapy as a part of the brain disease treatment process. Improvements observed in their own patients and the discussion of case histories with their colleagues has convinced each neurologist convinced to the positive benefits of art therapy.
The art chat was prompted by the start of the Lou Ruvo Center's FTD and young onset dementia program, and saw an opportunity for a public discussion on the topic, said Dr. Gabriel Leger, an Alzhemier's specialist at the facility. "Our center is also exploring the possibility of incorporating more actively art therapy in the treatment of our patients," he added. "We have had exchanges with Dr. Potts, who has great interest in this field. We felt that lectures by and public discussions with both Drs. Miller and Potts would be thought-provoking and interesting to the community."
For more info, visit the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health webpage.