Scientists Spot Cognitive Decline in Famous Artists’ Brushstrokes

Could paintings hold clues to Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases?

De Kooning
This untitled painting by Willem De Kooning was created in the 1950s, decades before the artist was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966

Scientists have long suspected that staying creative into old age could help stave off neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. But could existing artwork reveal an artist’s cognitive state? A new study suggests that could be true, reports The Guardian’s Ian Sample, and identified differences between normally aging artists and those with cognitive decline using only their brushstrokes.

In the new study, published in the journal Neuropsychology, a group of researchers examined the idea that cognitive deterioration could be spotted in the brushstrokes of patients with dementia. They studied 2,092 paintings from three artists who did not have cognitive declines as they aged (Marc Chagall, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso) and four artists who did (Salvador Dalí​ and Norval Morrisseau, who had Parkinson’s, as well as Willem De Kooning and James Brooks, who both had Alzheimer’s).

The researchers used a technique called fractal analysis to examine each painting. Though the word "fractal" is commonly associated with whirling geometric patterns found in nature, the concept—mathematical sets that demonstrate repeating patterns on the large and small scales—can also be seen in art. Fractal analysis has been used to scrutinize the work of Jackson Pollock, for example. Over the course of his career, his use of fractal patterns increased, and seeking out these spirals has even been used to root out fake paintings. 

In this most recent work, researchers looked for the fractal dimension—a measure of how completely a pattern fills a space—seeking out variations in fractal dimension of each artist as they aged. They also examined the productivity of all of the artists over the course of their careers.

The researchers found that the paintings of artists with neurodegenerative diseases had more differences in fractal dimension than the control group as the artists aged, with fractal dimension falling off as their conditions deteriorated. For two of the artists—De Kooning and Brooks—these differences could be detected in their brushstrokes as early as 40 years of age, decades before they were diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases. In contrast, the artists who aged normally showed more fractal dimension and complexity as the years wore on.

Could artwork one day be used as a way to diagnose neurodegenerative diseases, halting the progression years before the advanced stages set in? Perhaps. But for now, don’t get your hopes up: The recent study’s sample size is small, and it has not yet been replicated. It’s also impossible to tell if the control group was a good counterpart to the paintings of De Kooning, Brooks and Morisseau.

Though the researchers note that the technique could be helpful for, say, evaluating the authenticity of an image painted during an artist’s cognitive decline, they hedge their bets when it comes to its use as a diagnostic tool. One day, they write, it could be possible “to identify changes in the structure of a painting, years before diagnosis of a neurological disorder”—a promise that falls far short of diagnosis. And as Sample points out, fractal imaging as a method is hotly contested within the world of science, and the study that authenticated a Pollock painting using fractal analysis has since been challenged.

Artwork may never be a way to definitively diagnose disease, but the study is a reminder that it could hold clues to how people’s minds work. All the more reason to keep studying it—and to celebrate the people who keep creating as they age.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.