Odd Artistic Awakenings: Certain Dementia Patients Exhibit a Flair for Artistic Pursuits

Article excerpt

Certain dementia patients exhibit a flair fop artistic pursuits. Doctors ape beginning to associate the disease not only with declining abilities, but also with interesting new talents.

John B. had built a successful career as a stockbroker when, in his 50s, he experienced a drastic personality change, abruptly quit his job and started a new career -- as an artist.

This wasn't a typical mid-life crisis. John was suffering from what's called "frontotemporal dementia," a disorder similar to Alzheimer's disease. Paradoxically, frontotemporal dementia brings out artistic talents in people who never had them, or enables creative artists to retain their talents long after they lose their ability to speak.

John's son had contacted Bruce L. Miller, a neurology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, who initially dismissed John's newfound interest in art. "But then I asked him to send me some pictures," says Miller. "Not only did his paintings improve, but some of his art was really spectacular! One of his paintings, of a sailboat, won a local art award."

Miller studied 12 other patients, including a man who began composing string quartets and a woman whose coworkers dubbed her "the chocoholic whistler," after she suddenly developed a talent for whistling and composing limericks, along with an obsession for chocolates. Another woman was reduced to speaking gibberish, yet retained her ability to weave and to play beautiful musical pieces.

"Paradoxically, for these people, a period of exceptional creativity heralded the beginnings of a tragic disease," explains Miller, who recently presented his findings at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in Minneapolis.

Dementia, once called senility, is marked by a progressive decline in intellectual and social abilities. One of the earliest signs is a gradual loss of memory, followed by confusion and disorientation in the later stages. Alzheimer's disease is one form of dementia.

At his UCLA clinic, Miller examined 80 patients suffering from the disorder, which causes the destruction of brain cells in the regions that regulate social behavior and often leads to drastic personality changes. Strangely, he found that the disorder seems to affect creative people differently.

In most patients, dementia causes brain-cell loss in both the right and left frontal lobes, which control complex thought and planning. …