New research suggests it’s possible to detect neurodegenerative disorders in artists before they are diagnosed. This 1931 painting from Salvador Dali exhibits a different “fractal fingerprint” compared to his later works—one indicative of Parkinson’s disease. (Image: Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931)

Researchers from the University of Liverpool have shown that it’s possible to detect neurodegenerative disorders in famous artists by analyzing subtle changes in their brush strokes over time. The technique could eventually be used to flag Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in artists before they’re diagnosed.

A new study published in Neuropsychology shows that a mathematical technique known as “fractal analysis” can be used to detect signs of neurodegeneration in an artist’s work. A research team led by Alex Forsythe from the University of Liverpool’s School of Psychology made the discovery by examining 2,092 paintings from the careers of seven famous artists who experienced either normal aging or neurodegenerative disorders.

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Using fractal analysis, the researchers were able to identify complex geometric patterns in the brushstrokes of each artist. Fractals can reveal hidden and often self-repeating patterns in everyday objects and phenomena. These distinctive geometrical shapes are like fingerprints, allowing scientists to match an artist with his or her work.

hFractal analysis revealed changes to Dali’s brush strokes late in life. (Image: Dali, The Swallow’s Tail, 1983)

Fractal analysis is so accurate that it has been used to determine the authenticity of major works of art. Famously, the technique was once used to distinguish an authentic Jackson Pollock paintings from a large collection of fakes, showing that when artists paint, they instill their own unique fractal patterns on their work.

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With this in mind, Forsythe’s team sought to learn if variations in an artist’s fractal fingerprint over time are a function of increasing age, or if neurological decline has something to do with it.

Indigenous Canadian artist Norval Morrisseau suffered from Parkinson’s disease—a neurological disorder that’s detectable by analyzing the fractal patterns found in his brush strokes. (Image: Morrisseau, Gathering Shamans, 1972)

For the study, the researchers examined paintings from four artists known to have suffered from either Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, namely Salvadore Dali, Norval Morrisseau, James Brooks, and Willem De Kooning. The researchers also studied the works of three artists who had no known neurodegenerative problems: Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Claude Monet.

Changes to Pablo Picaso’s fractal signature over time did not show the same pattern as those fractals produced by artists with neurodegenerative diseases. (Image: Picasso, Self Portrait, 1972)

Fractal analysis demonstrated clear patterns of change among the artists who suffered neurological deterioration compared to those who aged normally. In all cases, the fractal fingerprints changed, but the fractal dimensions produced by the Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s artists showed consistent patterns that were distinguishable from the healthy group. Incredibly, this analysis shows that alterations in the brain can be detected through the minute changes in an artist’s brush stroke—changes that can be detected years before symptoms of neurological decline start to appear.

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“This process offers the potential for the detection of emerging neurological problems,” noted Forsythe in a statement. “We hope that our innovation may open up new research directions that will help to diagnose neurological disease in the early stages”

[Neuropsychology]