Memory loss clues in art

Memory loss clues art
Woman 1 by Willem de Kooning

Scientists at Maynooth analyzed brush strokes by famous painters and found early signs of disease

The works of famous artists could be used to help combat brain diseases, according to scientists at an Irish university. Analysis of the brushstrokes by painters such as Salvador Dali and Willem de Kooning showed the early signs of degenerative illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Researchers at Maynooth University, Co. Kildare and at the University of Liverpool believe the study could be used to prevent the development of such conditions.

“Identifying changes in someone’s behaviour that can predict clinical diagnoses years later is very challenging,” said Professor Ronan Reilly of Maynooth.

“However, this data suggests that it could be possible to identify changes in the structure of a painting many years before the diagnosis of a neurological disorder.”

More than 2,000 paintings were stripped to black and white to examine the changing structures and how they relate to an artist’s health.

Memory loss clues art
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

The study looked at the art of Dali and Norval Morrisseau, who are believed to have suffered from Parkinson’s disease, as well as paintings by de Kooning and James Brooks, who had Alzheimer’s. Works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Claude Monet – who were said to have suffered from non-degenerative brain illnesses – were also taken into account.

The decoding process revealed that as those suffering with brain diseases got older, their artistic structures changed, often becoming less complex.

“Art has long been embraced by psychologists as an effective method of improving the quality of life for those persons living with cognitive disorders,” Dr Alex Forsythe, from the University of Liverpool, said.

“We have built on this tradition by unpicking artists’ ‘handwriting’ through the analysis of their individual connection with the brush and paint.

“This process offers the potential for the detection of emerging neurological problems.”

The research builds on previous analysis, which has shown that linguistic changes in writers and politicians can provide an early indicator of cognitive deterioration. The speeches of US President Ronald Reagan displayed significant decline between the 1980 and 1984 elections and a paper published in 1984 posited that this decline was an indicator of the initial signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Ten years later, when Reagan received his official diagnosis, this conclusion was confirmed.


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