An artist’s brush strokes may reveal future Alzheimer’s disease

Researchers at Maynooth University in Ireland and the University of Liverpool studied 2,091 paintings from seven famous artists to determine how their painting changed over time. Four of the artists developed neurological diseases later in life: Willem deKooning and James Brooks developed Alzheimer’s; Salvador Dali and Norval Morrisseau developed Parkinson’s. Three aged normally: Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Claude Monet.

In the works by painters who later developed Alzheimer’s, the researchers discovered a change over time in the fractals that show up in their brush strokes.

Fractals are mathematically repeating patterns within patterns, found in nature and in human creations. They can be seen in the branching patterns of trees and rivers, the spiral formations of seashells and pineapples, the magnificent feathers of peacocks, and even in lightning and snowflakes. They can also be used like fingerprints to authenticate the works attributed to a particular artist.

Jackson Pollock

A British physicist found that the paintings of Jackson Pollock, though they seem random and chaotic, contain fractals that are pleasing to the eye.

Scientists analyze the brushstrokes of each painting using a mathematical process called fractal analysis that measures geometric patterns by how often a shape repeats and at what scale. While artists might change painting styles over time, the fractals visible in their brush strokes usually stay the same.

However, this study revealed that artists who were developing a neurodegenerative disorder began to show changes in the fractal dimensions of their paintings, not visible in artists who aged normally.

To uncover fractal patterns in a painting, scientists put the image through a computer program that measures how many times brushstroke patterns repeat within the squares of a grid.

The work of artists who developed Alzheimer’s disease showed a decline in fractal dimensions beginning about the age of 40. In artists who developed Parkinson’s disease, their capabilities increased up until their late fifties and declined from then on. The results were published in the journal Neuropsychology.

How can these findings be applied to the average person? Most people are not professional artists and do not have a collection of works that can be compared over time. However, there are clues in these observations that may lead to other diagnostic methods. For example, earlier studies found that linguistic changes in writers and public speakers provide an early indication of cognitive deterioration.

For more info on Alzheimer’s and dementia, see Guide To Long Term Care

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