Artist's work shows dementia may unlock hidden areas of creativity

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The Independent Online

The work of an artist stricken by dementia underwent a remarkable transformation, becoming increasingly free and original as her brain decayed, research published today reveals.

The findings suggest that some types of dementia may release new areas of creativity, which grow and develop as language skills decline.

The female artist was a high school art teacher who emigrated to the United States from China as a teenager. She was trained in Western representational art and Chinese brush painting and, though talented, her work was conservative.

In her early fifties she was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, a rare type of inherited dementia, and was forced to give up teaching as she became increasingly forgetful. But she continued to paint and, as the disease progressed, started merging Eastern and Western styles.

Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who describes her case in the journal Neurology, said: "It was clear that she was released from the formal restraints of her training. Her later pieces were no longer realistic but had an intense emotional and impressionistic style." She ceased painting in 2001 but still talks about her work despite having limited speech. "When she talks about her painting, her language comes more freely and is more spontaneous than when any other topic is discussed," Dr Miller said.

The case adds to evidence that loss of brain cells in the area of the brain that controls language can have an unexpected bonus. Others with dementias have also developed a talent for painting. In this artist's case, her illness also seems to have released her from her social inhibitions. Instead of working in her studio she started to go out to cafés and concerts, where she would sketch people while eavesdropping on their conversations.

"Whatever the mechanism, our patient represents a remarkable example of how a truly talented individual can continue to evolve and create in the face of a degenerative brain disease," Dr Miller said. Her case had changed his attitude, he added. "We typically don't think that something could be getting better, we only think about what's getting worse. Now I always ask if there is anything patients are doing very well, or better, than before."