Paint Strokes May Help ID Neurodegenerative Disorders in Artists

A new study shows that it may be possible to detect neurodegenerative disorders in artists before they are diagnosed.

Dr. Alex Forsythe from the University of Liverpool’s School of Psychology and her team, working with Dr. Tamsin Williams of Maynooth University in Ireland, examined 2,092 paintings from the careers of seven famous artists who experienced both normal aging and neurodegenerative disorders.

Of the seven, two suffered from Parkinson’s disease (Salvador Dali and Norval Morrisseau), two suffered from Alzheimer’s disease (James Brooks and Willem De Kooning), and three had no recorded neurodegenerative disorders (Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet).

The brushstrokes of each of the paintings were analyzed using a method of applying non-traditional mathematics to patterns known as “fractal” analyses to identify complex geometric patterns, according to the researchers.

Fractals are mathematical characterizations of self-repeating patterns often described as the fingerprints of nature. They can be found in natural phenomena such as clouds, snowflakes, trees, rivers, and mountains. This method has also been used to determine the authenticity of major works of art, the researchers note.

Although painters work within a different style or genre, the fractal dimension in which they operate should remain comparable.

The results were examined to see if the variations in an artist’s unique fractals in their work over their career were due to them just increasing in age or because of ongoing cognitive deterioration.

The study showed clear patterns of change in the fractal dimension of the paintings by artists who suffered neurological deterioration from those aging normally, according to the study’s findings.

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

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

The study was published in Neuropsychology.

Source: University of Liverpool