Brushstrokes could detect onset of brain disease

A painting by Pablo Picasso who was one of seven artists studied by academics as part of their groundbreaking research.   Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

A painting by Pablo Picasso who was one of seven artists studied by academics as part of their groundbreaking research. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

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A groundbreaking study could lead the way for artwork to be used as a way of helping identify the early onset of degenerative brain diseases.

Scientists studied art produced by some of the world’s most celebrated painters and detected subtle changes in artistic methods over their lifetimes that they believe foretell their creators’ later succumbing to neurological disorders.

Brushstrokes by Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and five other artists were analysed by experts at Liverpool University and Ireland’s Maynooth University who digitally stripped 2,092 paintings to black and white in order to uncover changing patterns and structures.

The insights they gained may lead to new research which could ultimately help diagnose the early stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Professor Ronan Reilly, from the Department of Computer Science at Maynooth University, said: “Identifying changes in someone’s behaviour that can predict clinical diagnoses years later is very challenging; however, this data suggests that it could be possible to identify changes in the structure of a painting many years before the diagnosis of a neurological disorder.”

Prof Reilly ran tests using non-traditional mathematics, similar to those used to study snowflakes or spot forged artworks attributed to the renowned abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.

The work of Dali and Norval Morrisseau, who are believed to have suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and James Brooks and Willem De Kooning, who had Alzheimer’s, was analysed along with paintings by Picasso, Marc Chagall and Claude Monet who did not suffer brain illness. It revealed that the artistic structures used by those with brain disease changed as they got older, becoming less complex.

The research, published in the Neuropsychology journal, found no simplification in patterns and structures used by artists who aged without degenerative brain disease.

Dr Alex Forsythe, from Liverpool University’s school of psychology, said: “Art has long been embraced by psychologists as an effective method of improving the quality of life for those persons living with cognitive disorders.

“We have built on this tradition by unpicking artists’ ‘handwriting’ through the analysis of their individual connection with the brush and paint.

“This process offers the potential for the detection of emerging neurological problems.”

The scientists believe the method is similar to how US president Ronald Reagan’s deteriorating health was detected before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

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