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Memory May Fade with Dementia, but Artistic Abilities and Benefits Carry On

Painting 010 Hilgos Foundation
A water color by Hilgos, an accomplished artist who continued to paint through the last years of her life despite the severity of her illness. Her artistic production is well documented in the film ‘I Remember Better When I Paint.’” Credit: Hilgos Foundation, used with permission.

Imagine Alzheimer's disease as a type of brain failure, where the brain's functions - memory, decision-making, processing information - are diminished as the organ declines.  What if some components remain functional beneath the primary failures? 

Neurologists say that ability to appreciate and produce art is one area of the brain that is relatively preserved in Alzheimer's disease, and that with proper support, people can continue to create and appreciate art well into the course of their disease.

Not only does art draw upon neural capacities in a flexible manner, but art allows people with Alzheimer's to express feelings they may not be able to verbally communicate. Alzheimer's patients may even have a slight advantage to achieving the state of "flow" where they are intensely engaged and unself-conscious, experts suggest, as decreased blood flow to the front part of the brain allows for analytical areas to be suppressed.

Since it is possible for Alzheimer's patients to create art, researchers are investigating whether art therapy improves symptoms or quality of life. A new review of studies assessing art interventions from Perelman School of Medicine researchers found that art creation and appreciation activities may improve Alzheimer's disease patients' mood, activities of daily living, quality of life, and even caregiver distress.

The review paper highlights a variety of small studies of different models, including one intervention where caregivers reported improved mood in more than half of the AD patients, and a quarter of AD patients had improved mood that lasted for days. Caregivers themselves also experienced a greater social connection and fewer emotional problems.

However, researchers warn, existing studies, while promising, do not provide unequivocal evidence to demonstrate the efficacy of art therapy, and more rigorous research is needed. The experts suggest that future controlled trials should involve participants that are stratified by disease type and stage and measure neuropsychiatric symptoms, quality of life and caregiver stress, to see if art therapy interventions work particularly well for certain subgroups or improve outcomes in specific areas.

"Rather than trying to correct disabilities, with medications, art therapy capitalizes on preserved abilities," says Anjan Chatterjee, MD, professor of Neurology and senior author of the review paper appearing in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. "While senses stay intact as the disease progresses, art therapy, music and other forms of sensory stimulation may be combined in beneficial ways."

The Penn Memory Center’s new Cognitive Fitness Program facilitator, Scott Reid, brings with him a master’s degree in Art Therapy. His focus will be on the multi-faceted Cognitive Fitness program initially, where he’ll bring his experience working in art therapy programs into the program.

If a particularly effective art therapy model is found, the hope is that it could be applied broadly and help Alzheimer's disease patients - and caregivers - throughout the course of the disease. 

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