Artist's Skills Blossom After Brain Disease

Researchers hope to learn how brain's right, left hemispheres interact

TUESDAY, May 27, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- It's an intriguing medical mystery involving an artist whose skills actually grew after a disease struck the left side of her brain.

And according to the lead author of a new study, the artist's experience may offer insight into how the left side of the brain, concerned with matters such as language, thoughts and words, may limit the creativity of the free-wheeling right side.

"Some of the constraints that the linguistic side had placed on her were freed up when she developed the degeneration," says Dr. Bruce L. Miller, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

Miller writes about the artist, who is not identified, in the May 27 issue of Neurology.

The woman, an emigrant from China, taught high school art in the United States, but began to have trouble planning lessons and grading papers in 1986. She retired in 1995 at the age of 52 after she started forgetting the names of students and lost her ability to keep students in line.

Doctors diagnosed her with a rare disease known as frontotemporal dementia, which often strikes people in their 50s. The disease destroys the ability of neurons in the brain to communicate with each other, Miller says. "Then the neurons die and disappear."

There is no treatment or cure for the disease, and researchers don't know its cause.

The woman's case is unusual because the disease only struck the left side of her brain, which governs language and things such as planning, organization and the ability to interact with others.

"The change was very slow," Miller says. "She had problems getting words out and lost the ability to name things. Even more recently, she's had trouble understanding what people say."

But while her brain deteriorated, the woman's artistic talents seemed to grow, Miller says. She began to blend Eastern and Western methods of painting -- which she had done separately before -- and her work became more impressionistic. Her paintings were "freer, wilder, with different use of color," Miller says.

The artist still puts on shows and sells her work, but she hasn't produced new paintings since 2001.

Miller has written studies before about patients who developed artistic talent after disease struck the left side of their brain, even though they'd shown little or no interest in art before. But the woman in this case is unusual because she already had artistic talent when she became ill, he says.

The disease "transformed her art, and the pieces she's done are some of the most beautiful I've ever seen," Miller says.

He isn't sure, however, if the reverse could happen -- if a patient suffering a right-brain injury could suddenly become adept at language. Miller says he has never seen such a case.

Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, says research shows people with dementia -- such as those suffering from Alzheimer's disease or some types of Parkinson's disease -- aren't empty vessels.

"They can have an active mental life," says Cummings, who has worked with Miller in the past. "The other lesson I take away from this is that there's this latent potential in the brain, and it takes unusual circumstances to reveal it."

More information

Learn more about dementia from the American Academy of Family Physicians. And a Web site called Funderstanding offers a quick primer on the right and left sides of the brain.

SOURCES: Bruce L. Miller, M.D., neurologist, University of California, San Francisco; Jeffrey Cummings, M.D., professor, neurology and psychiatry, University of California, Los Angeles; May 27, 2003, Neurology
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