"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


More cases show skills tied to art can survive serious brain illness

Aug. 23, 2013
Courtesy of St. Michael's Hospital
and World Science staff

The abil­ity to draw spon­ta­ne­ously and from mem­o­ry may per­sist in the brains of artists af­flicted with de­men­tia that re­duces their abil­ity to per­form dai­ly tasks, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

“Art opens the mind,” said Lu­is For­naz­zari, neu­ro­lo­g­i­cal con­sult­ant at St. Michael’s Hos­pi­tal’s Mem­o­ry Clin­ic in To­ron­to and lead au­thor of a pa­per on the find­ings. “Art should be taught to ev­ery­one,” he added. “It’s bet­ter than many med­ica­t­ions and is as im­por­tant as math­e­mat­ics or his­to­ry.”

Mary Hecht (Image courtesy estate of Mary Hecht)

For­naz­zari and col­leagues stud­ied the last few years of the late Mary Hecht, an in­terna­t­ionally re­nowned sculp­tor, who was able to draw spur-of-the mo­ment and de­tailed sketches of faces and fig­ures, in­clud­ing from mem­o­ry, de­spite an ad­vanced case of de­men­tia.

Hecht “was a remarka­ble ex­am­ple of how ar­tis­tic abil­i­ties are pre­served in spite of the de­genera­t­ion of the brain and a loss in the more mun­dane, day-to-day mem­o­ry func­tions,” he said.

Hecht, who died in April 2013 at 81, had been di­ag­nosed with vas­cu­lar de­men­tia and was wheelchair-bound due to pre­vi­ous strokes. De­spite her vast knowl­edge of art and per­son­al tal­ent, she was un­able to draw the cor­rect time on a clock, name cer­tain an­i­mals or re­mem­ber any words she was asked to re­call.

A clay sculp­ture by Hecht (Im­age cour­tesy es­tate of Mary Hecht)

But she quickly sketched an ac­cu­rate por­trait of a re­search stu­dent from the Mem­o­ry Clin­ic, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists. And she was able to draw a free-hand sketch of a ly­ing Bud­dha fig­ur­ine and re­pro­duce it from mem­o­ry a few min­utes lat­er. To the great de­light of St. Michael’s doc­tors, Hecht al­so drew an ac­cu­rate sketch of famed cel­list Mstislav Ros­tro­po­vich af­ter she learn­ed of his death ear­li­er that day on the ra­di­o.

While draw­ing and show­ing med­ical staff her own crea­t­ions, Hecht al­so spoke el­o­quently and with­out hesita­t­ion about art.

“This is the most ex­cep­tion­al ex­am­ple of the de­gree of pre­serva­t­ion of ar­tis­tic skills we’ve seen in our clin­ic,” said Co­rinne Fisch­er, di­rec­tor at the clin­ic and an­oth­er of the pa­per’s au­thors. “Most of the oth­er stud­ies that have been done in this ar­ea looked at oth­er kinds of de­men­tia such as Alzheimer’s dis­ease or front­al tem­po­ral de­men­tia, while this is a case of cog­ni­tive re­serve in a pa­tient with fairly ad­vanced vas­cu­lar de­men­tia.”

The find­ings were pub­lished Aug. 22 in the Ca­na­di­an Jour­nal of Neu­ro­lo­g­i­cal Sci­ences. For­naz­zari pre­vi­ously wrote a pa­per de­tail­ing a mu­si­cian who, de­spite de­clin­ing health be­cause of Alzheimer’s dis­ease, could still play the pia­no and learn new mu­sic. In 2011, Fisch­er and col­leagues studied bi­lin­gual pa­tients with Alzheimer’s and found they had twice as much “cog­ni­tive re­serve” as speak­ers of one lan­guage.

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The ability to draw spontaneously and from memory may persist in the brains of artists afflicted with dementia that reduces their ability for everyday tasks, according to a new study. “Art opens the mind,” said Luis Fornazzari, neurological consultant at St. Michael’s Hospital’s Memory Clinic in Toronto and lead author of a paper on the findings. “Art should be taught to everyone,” he added. “It’s better than many medications and is as important as mathematics or history.” Fornazzari and colleagues studied the last few years of the late Mary Hecht, an internationally renowned sculptor, who was able to draw spur-of-the moment and detailed sketches of faces and figures, including from memory, despite an advanced case of dementia. Hecht “was a remarkable example of how artistic abilities are preserved in spite of the degeneration of the brain and a loss in the more mundane, day-to-day memory functions,” he said. Hecht, who died in April 2013 at 81, had been diagnosed with vascular dementia and was wheelchair-bound due to previous strokes. Despite her vast knowledge of art and personal talent, she was unable to draw the correct time on a clock, name certain animals or remember any words she was asked to recall. But she quickly sketched an accurate portrait of a research student from the Memory Clinic, according to the scientists. And she was able to draw a free-hand sketch of a lying Buddha figurine and reproduce it from memory a few minutes later. To the great delight of St. Michael’s doctors, Hecht also drew an accurate sketch of famed cellist Mstislav Rostropovich after she learned of his death earlier that day on the radio. While drawing and showing medical staff her own creations, Hecht also spoke eloquently and without hesitation about art. “This is the most exceptional example of the degree of preservation of artistic skills we’ve seen in our clinic,” said Corinne Fischer, director at St. Michael’s Hospital’s Memory Clinic and another of the paper’s authors. “As well, most of the other studies that have been done in this area looked at other kinds of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease or frontal temporal dementia, while this is a case of cognitive reserve in a patient with fairly advanced vascular dementia.” Fornazzari previously wrote a paper detailing a musician who, despite declining health because of Alzheimer’s disease, could still play the piano and learn new music. As well, in October 2011, Fischer and colleagues looked at bilingual patients with Alzheimer’s and discovered they had twice as much “cognitive reserve” as speakers of one language. Both physicians want to lead a larger study of artists with neurological illnesses to further explore the importance of art and cognitive brain capacity. The findings were published Aug. 22 in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences.