The New York Times recently published an article by Sandra Blakeslee called “ A Disease That Allowed Torrents of Creativity”. What disease are they writing about? FTD or Frontotemportal dementia, also referred to as Arnold Pick’s disease. Apparently, early stage FTD brings out the artistic side of some individuals, occurring as the frontal brain areas decline and the posterior regions take over.
This story focuses on Dr. Anne Adams, who was diagnosed with FTD. She was trained in mathematics, chemistry and biology and left her career to care for her son in 1986. After her son’s recovery, she decided to leave the world of science behind and invested her time and energy in art – particularly painting. During the course of her disease she became engrossed with the music of Maurice Ravel (who had also had suffered from FTD). She took Ravel’s “Bolero” music and translated it into visual art. Blakeslee (2008) writes:
Dr. Adams, who was also drawn to themes of repetition, painted one upright rectangular figure for each bar of “Bolero.” The figures are arranged in an orderly manner like the music, countered by a zigzag winding scheme, Dr. Miller said. The transformation of sound to visual form is clear and structured. Height corresponds to volume, shape to note quality and color to pitch. The colors remain unified until the surprise key change in bar 326 that is marked with a run of orange and pink figures that herald the conclusion.
An article by Dr. Miller and colleagues describing how FTD can release new artistic talents was published online in December 2007 by the journal Brain. FTD refers to a group of diseases often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease, in that patients become increasingly demented, Dr. Miller said. But the course and behavioral manifestations of FTD are different.
In the most common variant, patients undergo gradual personality changes. They grow apathetic, become slovenly and typically gain 20 pounds. They behave like 3-year-olds in public, asking embarrassing questions in a loud voice. All along, they deny anything is wrong.
Two other variants of FTD involve loss of language. In one, patients have trouble finding words, Dr. Miller said. When someone says to the patients, “Pass the broccoli,” they might reply, “What is broccoli?”
In another, PPA or primary progressive aphasia, the spoken-language network disintegrates. Patients lose the ability to speak.
All three variants share the same underlying pathology. The disease, which has no cure, can progress quickly or, as in the case of Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, who announced his retirement last fall because of an FTD diagnosis, over many years.