Some Parkinson's Patients Discover an Artistic Side01/31/13
THURSDAY, Jan. 31 (HealthDay News) -- Some people with
Parkinson's disease discover untapped artistic abilities after
their diagnosis -- a phenomenon that seems to be related to their
Over the years, reports have popped up in the medical literature
on Parkinson's patients who suddenly discover they are painters,
sculptors or writers at heart.
Dan Joseph is one of them. After being diagnosed with the
movement disorder a dozen years ago, the former doctor eventually
took up painting. But it wasn't because he planned on becoming an
"A friend of mine said, 'You're not doing anything. Why don't you paint?'" said Joseph, a 79-year-old Santa Barbara, Calif., resident.
He decided to follow that advice and soon discovered that when
he painted, his hand tremors improved. He also discovered that he
actually had talent; about six years after first picking up a
paintbrush, Joseph has had three solo art exhibitions.
No one knows how common it is for Parkinson's patients to find
their inner painter or creative writer, according to Dr. Rivka
Inzelberg, of Tel Aviv University and Sheba Medical Center, in
But when she pulled together past case reports on 14 such
patients, Inzelberg found that the phenomenon does appear to be
related to treatment with levodopa and so-called dopamine agonists
-- Parkinson's drugs that enhance the action of the brain chemical
One patient, for example, suddenly became interested in creative
writing after starting levodopa and a dopamine agonist. That
interest waned, however, when the drug doses were cut, Inzelberg
reported in the Jan. 14 online edition of the journal
Parkinson's disease arises when dopamine-producing cells in the
brain die off over time. That leads to symptoms such as tremors,
rigid muscles, slowed movement and balance problems. Levodopa and
dopamine agonists -- drugs like Requip (ropinirole) and Mirapex
(pramipexole) -- help make up for that dopamine loss.
But dopamine is not only involved in movement; it's also
connected to the brain's "reward system." And it's well known that
some Parkinson's patients on dopamine-enhancing drugs develop
so-called impulse-control disorders -- such as compulsive gambling
and hypersexuality (commonly known as "sex addiction").
Inzelberg said it's possible that for certain Parkinson's
patients, the medications lower inhibitions that once held back any
"It is also possible that dopamine is involved in creativity in general," Inzelberg said. That theory, she noted, is based on the observation that artists who suffer psychosis -- which involves excessive dopamine activity -- can become remarkably productive. Think Vincent Van Gogh.
That's all speculation, though. Experts know little about why
some people on Parkinson's drugs suddenly find creative
inspiration. But it does seem to be related to the medications
themselves, agreed Dr. Anhar Hassan, an assistant professor of
neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who was not
involved in the report.
"This does suggest that the medication is driving the behavior," Hassan said.
But, she added, "it would be giving false hope to imply to
patients that if they start on medication, they'll become
While no one knows how common this medicated-related creativity
might be, it is almost certainly far less common than negative side
effects such as impulsive gambling. In her own study, Hassan found
that about one in five patients on Parkinson's drugs developed some
form of impulse-control problem.
Dr. Martin Niethammer, a neurologist at North Shore-LIJ's
Cushing Neuroscience Institute in Great Neck, N.Y., said he's seen
many patients who develop problems with impulse control while on
Parkinson's medications, but only one or two who seemed to become
Both he and Hassan said the phenomenon is probably rare --
though it may be under-recognized because patients do not think to
tell their doctors about it.
Another thing that's not clear, Niethammer said, is how many of
the patients in the current report developed a "talent" in writing
or painting, or simply an interest.
Of course, if the activity brings them pleasure, it doesn't
really matter. "If this brings joy to people, then that's great,"
In some cases, the creative expression seems to bring more than
enjoyment: It also seems to help some patients with their tremors,
according to Inzelberg.
That's what happened for Dan Joseph. Painting seems to calm his
tremors, and he feels like his vision becomes more "acute." "I've
found that I can sit for hours and paint," said Joseph, who has
also recently taken up poetry writing.
And despite the art shows, the fact that he has talent comes
second for Joseph. "I really paint for myself," he said. "I feel
happy when I'm painting and I'm creating."
Learn more about Parkinson's disease from the
U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and
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