Dementia is a progressive disorder that slowly takes away higher cognitive functions. Yet in rare instances new skills develop in their place. People whose aphasia erodes their language function, for example, sometimes display a newfound artistic ability.
Using paintings by patients with Alzheimer's disease and progressive aphasia, noted Alzheimer's researcher Bruce Miller, M.D., describes the effects of dementia and their implications concerning brain evolution and the neurological sources of creativity.
Bruce L. Miller, MD, is a Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) where he holds the A.W. & Mary Margaret Clausen Distinguished Chair. He is the clinical director of the aging and dementia program at UCSF and heads the Alzheimer's Disease Center. For nearly two decades, Dr. Miller also has been the scientific director for the John Douglas French Foundation for Alzheimer's Disease.
Dr. Miller is a behavioral neurologist with a special interest in brain imaging and function. The dementia program he directs at UCSF sees approximately 400 new patients every year and follows many of these patients over time. A particular interest of his, frontotemporal dementia, often strikes people in their 50s. The disease destroys the ability of neurons in the brain to communicate with each other, causing the neurons to die and disappear. There is no known treatment or cure for the disease, and researchers don't know its cause.
Through his work with these patients, Dr. Miller has discovered a small but remarkable subset of patients whose artistic skills blossom after the disease sets in. For these patients, visual or musical creativity emerges despite the progression of language and social impairment. These extraordinary patients offer a window into the brain's basis for creativity. Miller's work suggests much about the latent potential in the brain, and the unusual circumstances it can take to reveal it.
Dr. Miller is the author of a recent book The Human Frontal Lobes. His work has been published in the journals of Neurology, Archives of Neurology, Journal of International Neuropsychological Society, Brain, Lancet, and British Journal of Psychiatry.