Paintings reveal early signs of cognitive decline, claims study

Paintings reveal early signs of cognitive decline, claims study

Psychologists believe they can identify progressive changes in work of artists who went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease

The first subtle hints of cognitive decline may reveal themselves in an artist’s brush strokes many years before dementia is diagnosed, researchers believe.

The controversial claim is made by psychologists who studied renowned artists, from the founder of French impressionism, Claude Monet, to the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.

While Monet aged without obvious mental decline, de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease more than a decade before his death in 1997.

Alex Forsythe at the University of Liverpool analysed more than 2,000 paintings from seven famous artists and found what she believes are progressive changes in the works of those who went on to develop Alzheimer’s. The changes became noticeable when the artists were in their 40s.

Though intriguing, the small number of artists involved in the study means the findings are highly tentative. While Forsythe said the work does not point to an early test for dementia, she hopes it may open up fresh avenues for investigating the disease.

“I don’t believe this will be a tool for diagnosis, but I do think it will trigger people to consider new directions for research into dementia,” she said.

The research provoked mixed reactions from other scientists. Richard Taylor, a physicist at the University of Oregon, described the work as a “magnificent demonstration of art and science coming together”. But Kate Brown, a physicist at Hamilton College in New York, was less enthusiastic and dismissed the research as “complete and utter nonsense”.

Forsythe and her colleagues used digital imaging software to calculate how a mathematical feature called fractal density varied in artists’ paintings over their careers. The seven artists included Monet, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, who all aged without obvious brain disease; Salvador Dali and Norval Morrisseau, who developed Parkinson’s; and de Kooning and James Brooks, another abstract expressionist who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1985, seven years before his death.

Fractals are geometric patterns that repeat themselves at different size scales. They are seen in nature in the branching of trees and rivers, and in the craggy contours of coastlines. In paintings, fractals appear when patterns made by the tiniest brush strokes repeat on larger scales. The fractal dimension is a measure of fractal complexity, where an artwork with a large fractal dimension has a high ratio of fine to coarse fractal patterns. READ MORE

Source: theguardian.com