Of Art, Alzheimer’s & Neuroplasticity

October 27, 2009 at 4:01 pm 1 comment

Art & Alzheimer's:  Image by iprole on Stock.Xchng Alzheimer’s disease tragically destroys functions in the brain, hindering access to memory, language, and communication skills.  But sometimes, unexpected creativity can blossom in Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.

They may find self expression in abstract arrangements of found objects, like Josephine Mickow (who, sadly, passed away in her daughter’s arms this month), or benefit from more formalized programs  that take them to museums, or classes that help them paint, draw, or sculpt.

Participation in visual arts activities seems to provide a needed outlet for patients, as a form of self expression, an emotional outlet, a means of relating the world around them, keeping the brain stimulated, and, sometimes unexpectedly, seeming to route around damaged neural pathways in the brain to recover hidden memories and even language skills.  It seemingly can help reduce the anxiety, apathy, depression, and even the aggression  often associated with Alzheimer’s.

Just how all of this is possible in sometimes debilitated patients is still a bit of a mystery; how the brain processes art is still a bit of a mystery, too. One possibility is that because of the brain’s flexibility in shifting functions from one area to another through neuroplasticity.   As parts of the brain begin to fail due to the damage associated with Alzheimer’s, other parts may try to take up some of the slack – so that even people who have never demonstrated creative aptitude may find the parts of the brain involved in visual arts more engaged than before, and use them in new forms of communication.

How can art help with aggression and anxiety? Maybe by relieving some of the frustration that comes from feeling disconnected and isolated from the world.

I’m reminded of descriptions of the very young Helen Keller, before she learned to sign, and what an aggressive and angry little girl she was.  But once Annie Sullivan taught her to sign, she found ways of communicating, expressing herself, and connecting to the world in her own way.

Could participating in the arts provide that same peace of mind for Alzheimer’s patients?  Can it help provide mental stimulation that might slow the diseases progression, stimulate neural growth, provide even the slightest push-back against the loss of neural networks?

Art & Alzheimer's:  Image by iprole on Stock.XchngMaybe, maybe not.  But even if all it does is provide a few months of a more comfortable, engaged existence, it’s worth exploring.

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Entry filed under: Be Mentally Active, Purpose. Connection & Spirit. Tags: , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Ruth  |  February 9, 2010 at 8:50 am

    I agree with your maybe, or maybe not. Andt I’ll share a story with you. In my work as an art therapist for Alzheimer’s patients, I have sometimes persuaded patients to come into the art room, even though they are gazing passively into the distance, playing with objects in an absent minded way and reluctant to join the group. I nearly gave up on one such lady who was extremely overweight and found movement difficult. But I persevered and she clung onto my arm as we walked hand in hand to the art room where she drew a beautiful bird with wings drooping downwards. “He cant fly,” she said, and I guess that she might have expressed her own tiredness and immobility and also her desire to be a bird.
    She was certainly happier when she left the room smiling, than she was when she came in. That in itself is a gift to an Alzheimer’s patient.
    I have more such examples of the power of art therapy in my book “When Words Have Lost Their Meaning: Alzheimer’s Patients Communicate Through Art.” Greenwood Press 2005.
    In the book I give examples of the sort of art materials that are appropriate, ideas for artwork, ways of responding appropriately to people’s creative acts, no matter how simple they seem.


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A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
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