Art as an early indicator for neurological deterioration

Untitled XXI, Willem de Kooning

One of Liverpool University’s top psychologists, Dr Alex Forsythe, has recently published a fascinating article that will aid society’s battle with dementia. Dementia is reaching astonishing levels with approximately 850,000 sufferers in the UK alone. This number is ever growing with more and more victims each year, making it ever more important for early interventions.

Typical dementia symptoms, such as changes in mood and disorientation to time and place, develop in the later stages of dementia, once the disease is irreversible. In order to develop these early interventions, we must identify dementia as early as possible. And this is where the work of Dr Forsythe and colleagues offers hope.

Findings from their research shows that paintings could act as earlier indicators of early onset dementia. 2,092 paintings by seven famous artists, including Willem de Kooning (whose Untitled XXI is pictured above, photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images), were examined using fractal analysis. Fractal analysis is a complex mathematical method of looking at recurring patterns based on detail.

The analysis showed that up to twenty years before diagnosis, the fractal pattern content of artists who went on to develop dementia or Parkinson’s disease started to decrease. Therefore, it may be possible to identify atypical changes in the structure of an artist’s work which act as early indicators of the onset of neurological decline.

Together with colleagues, Dr Forsythe has offered an opening to a new area of research with the potential of finding earlier indicators of neurological deterioration. And as such, we are now one step closer to winning the battle with dementia.

You can take a look at the BBC News coverage here:


Forsythe, A., Williams, T., & Reilly, R. G. (2017). What paint can tell us: A fractal analysis of neurological changes in seven artists. Neuropsychology,31(1), 1.

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