Changes in Painting Patterns May Be Sign of Alzheimer’s Before Symptoms Occur

Magdalena Kegel avatar

by Magdalena Kegel |

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Alzheimer's artist analysis

Researchers have used a novel approach to identify changes in painting patterns that could signal an artist is developing Alzheimer’s disease or another neurodegenerative condition before symptoms show.

The team used fractal analysis to look at seven painters’ “artistic fingerprints” over time. Because the changes may occur before cognitive impairment shows up, fractal analysis could be an early indicator of dementia in artists and perhaps others.

The study, “What Paint Can Tell Us: A Fractal Analysis of Neurological Changes in Seven Artists,” analyzed the work of seven well-known artists: Willem De Kooning and James Brooks had Alzheimer’s disease, Salvador Dalí and Norval Morrisseau had Parkinson’s disease, and Marc Chagall, Claude Monet, and Pablo Picasso aged normally. The work was published in the journal Neuropsychology.

Fractals are mathematical descriptions of repeating patterns. Because the patterns can be found in natural phenomena, ranging from snowflakes to mountains, they are sometimes referred to as the fingerprints of nature.

But they are also present in works of art. The fractal dimension in art is a measure of how completely a pattern fills a space. This can be charted.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool in the U.K., Maynooth University in Ireland, and the Tees, Esk, and Wear Valleys NHS Trust analyzed 2,092 images of the seven artists. They found that changes in painting patterns occurred with age among healthy artists, but the change was remarkable among those with a neurodegenerative disease.

Interestingly, there was a difference in change between the artists with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Painting patterns in Alzheimer’s began changing when the artists were about 40. Fractal analysis of the change showed a persistent and steep reduction in patterns, like a ski slope.

The artists with Parkinson’s showed increasing affinity for the same painting patterns until 50 to 60, when change set in suddenly. Their fractal-analysis curve looked more like a hill.

“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, a psychologist from the University of Liverpool who led the study, said in a press release.

“We have built on this tradition by unpicking artists’ ‘handwriting’ through the analysis of their individual connection with the brush and paint,” he said. “This process offers the potential for the detection of emerging neurological problems.”

The steady decline in the fractal-analysis curves of the Alzheimer’s-afflicted artists supports the notion that the analysis could mirror the brain changes known to occur long before symptoms appear.

Changes in the way artists paint can often be seen without mathematical modeling. Researchers have previously suggested that Alzheimer’s is linked to changes in the spatial relations, color and contrast of paintings as an artist’s dementia progresses.

But fractal analysis is a quantifiable way to measure these changes. Earlier work has shown that artists work in a particular fractal-dimension range. Fractal analysis was used to distinguish Jackson Pollock originals from a flood of fakes.

In a similar way, analyses of speech have been used to study the progress of dementia. Such examinations show that in early stages of the disease, before cognitive symptoms show up, language loses its richness.

Ronald Reagan made language errors during his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale — 10 years before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Similarly, the later works of Iris Murdoch, a novelist and philosopher who developed Alzheimer’s, had fewer unique words than her earlier work.

“We hope that our innovation may open up new research directions that will help to diagnose neurological disease in the early stages,” Forsythe said.