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Creativity & Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease leads to nerve cell death and tissue loss throughout the brain. Over time, the brain shrinks dramatically, affecting nearly all of its functions. Alzheimer’s ultimately affects all parts of the brain but each person is affected differently as the disease progresses. In part, this is due to the nature and extent of damage being caused to different areas of the brain. Each section of the brain is known as a lobe; a lobe simply means a part of an organ. Because the portion of the brain that deals with creativity is often one of the last portions of the brain that is affected by Alzheimer’s disease, providing creative outlets for those affected in an important activity. In the earliest stages, before symptoms can be detected with testing, plaques and tangles, which are the hallmarks of the disease, begin to form in brain areas involved in:

Learning and memory
Thinking and planning

In the mild to moderate stages, brain regions develop more plaques and tangles than were present in early stages. As a result, individuals develop problems with memory or thinking serious enough to interfere with work or daily life. They may also get confused and have trouble handling money, expressing themselves and organizing their thoughts. Many people with Alzheimer’s disease are first diagnosed in this stage.

Plaques and tangles also spread to areas involved in:
Speaking and understanding speech
Sense of where your body is in relation to objects

In the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, most of the cortex is seriously damaged. The cerebral cortex is a sheet of neural tissue that is the outermost part of the brain. It plays a key role in memory, attention, perception, thought, language and consciousness. During this stage of the disease, the brain shrinks dramatically due to widespread cell death. Individuals lose their ability to communicate, to recognize family and loved ones and to care for themselves. The right hemisphere of the brain is associated with the creative process. It conveys feeling, imagination, symbols and images in the present and future. It processes philosophical & religious beliefs, special perception, form and abstract thoughts. Alzheimer’s disease has a profound impact on creativity. Alzheimer’s disease attacks the right posterior part of the brain, which enables people to retrieve internal imagery and copy images. Alzheimer’s disease patients may lose the ability to copy images entirely. However, people with Alzheimer’s disease can continue to produce art by using their remaining strengths, such as color or composition instead of shapes or realism.

Dr. Luis Fornazzari, a researcher from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the University of Toronto and clinical director of the Multilingual/Multicultural Memory Clinic believes the association between creativity and mental illness is an area worth exploring.
As part of his research, Dr. Fornazzari began studying the life of an artist who is suffering from  Alzheimer’s disease. Danae Chambers was commissioned to paint portraits of dignitaries around Canada and abroad. Her artwork has been shown in galleries around the world. Because of her disease, Ms. Chambers had a dramatic deterioration of communication, memory and life skills, but she could still paint beautifully. Traditionally, the approach in treating Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias focused on what is not functioning in the patient, such as memory loss and difficulties with daily life and communication. By focusing on abilities instead of cognitive deficits, Dr. Fornazzari is pioneering a new approach in the treatment of Alzheimer disease and related dementia.  “The distinctiveness of Danae Chambers’ story is that while examining her, we concentrated on the positive aspects of what was still functioning in her brain, such as her creative ability,” says Dr. Fornazzari. Many times patients in the advanced stages of the disease are isolated and have no means of any form of communication. The study suggests that quality of life is improved when patients are given the opportunity to express themselves in any form and it provides scientists an avenue to explore brain function.

The artists’ cognitive abilities were evaluated at four years, two years before and two years after the time she was admitted to a long term care facility in Toronto. Dr. Fornazzari monitored how her creativity emerged during the progressive course of the disease, while her other cognitive functions such as attention, working memory, and language ability increasingly deteriorated.  “Ms. Chambers’ case clearly demonstrates that the brain uses separate neural pathways for creative expression compared to neural networks used for speech, memory and attention,” says Dr. Fornazzari. “This is of profound importance to further understand and explore why Alzheimer’s disease preferentially attacks one neural pathway over the other.”  Dr. Fornazzari strongly advocates that creativity in any of its forms, either visual, musical, literary or performing arts should be actively explored in relation to patients with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, especially when their other cognitive functions do not allow caregivers and specialists to communicate with sufferers of the disease. This effort to focus on the preserved creative functions, instead of deficits of the patient, will improve their quality of life and is a rewarding way for caregivers to communicate with them. The findings of this scientific case study are published in the June issue of European Journal of Neurology.

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About The Author: Gloria Ha’o Schneider is an expert in senior citizen and baby boomer issues. Her topics revolve around Senior Living and Healthcare to provide the latest information to this demographic as well as their families and loved ones.

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