Releasing creativity in a decaying brain

The New York Times has a fantastic article on the remarkable artistic talent seemingly released in some people with fronto-temporal dementia (FTD) – a condition where frontal and temporal lobes start deteriorating.

Dementia is any condition where the brain or brain function deteriorates quicker than would be expected through normal ageing.

This can occur because of still poorly understood Alzheimer’s-like changes involving abnormal protein accumulation in the brain, or often, because the blood vessels start dying and deteriorating, leading to the death of the brain areas they serve.

A mix of both is not uncommon but the damage to the brain is often uneven and patchy, meaning that while mental function generally declines, specific skills and abilities can be impaired while others are left relatively intact.

Some brain areas are particularly involved in controlling or inhibiting others, meaning if these areas are damaged, the areas they ‘control’ can suddenly begin to work overtime (its like if you damaged the break on a car, often it would speed up when you didn’t want it to).

In fact, if these systems break down due to brain damage, we can regain reflexes we had when we were first born – such as automatically grasping things put in the hand – but which the brain inhibits as it matures.

The NYT article discusses a recent case study published in the medical journal Brain that suggests that this same process may release brain circuits leading to new artistic talents and skills.

From 1997 until her death 10 years later, Dr. Adams underwent periodic brain scans that gave her physicians remarkable insights to the changes in her brain.

“In 2000, she suddenly had a little trouble finding words,” her husband said. “Although she was gifted in mathematics, she could no longer add single digit numbers. She was aware of what was happening to her. She would stamp her foot in frustration.”

By then, the circuits in Dr. Adams’s brain had reorganized. Her left frontal language areas showed atrophy. Meanwhile, areas in the back of her brain on the right side, devoted to visual and spatial processing, appeared to have thickened.

When artists suffer damage to the right posterior brain, they lose the ability to be creative, Dr. Miller said. Dr. Adams’s story is the opposite. Her case and others suggest that artists in general exhibit more right posterior brain dominance. In a healthy brain, these areas help integrate multisensory perception. Colors, sounds, touch and space are intertwined in novel ways. But these posterior regions are usually inhibited by the dominant frontal cortex, he said. When they are released, creativity emerges.

The art of Anne Adams, the subject of the case study, can be seen on two websites and the NYT article contains a couple of striking pieces.

Link to NYT article ‘A Disease That Allowed Torrents of Creativity’.
Link to PubMed abstract of scientific study.

One thought on “Releasing creativity in a decaying brain”

  1. facinating and great news for sufferers. This could change the lives of many when it is widely publicised.

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