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Thursday, 12 June 2008

New insights on how the brain works

What's interesting in the article below is not that much how the brain works, but how it compensates for lost abilities. It goes very well with my post in After The Pink Goat. The post that is about how one feels if his left hemisphere is down.

A Disease That Allowed Torrents of Creativity

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.

Ravel and Dr. Adams were in the early stages of a rare disease called FTD, or frontotemporal dementia, when they were working, Ravel on “Bolero” and Dr. Adams on her painting of “Bolero,” Dr. Miller said. The disease apparently altered circuits in their brains, changing the connections between the front and back parts and resulting in a torrent of creativity.

“We used to think dementias hit the brain diffusely,” Dr. Miller said. “Nothing was anatomically specific. That is wrong. We now realize that when specific, dominant circuits are injured or disintegrate, they may release or disinhibit activity in other areas. In other words, if one part of the brain is compromised, another part can remodel and become stronger.”

Thus some patients with FTD develop artistic abilities when frontal brain areas decline and posterior regions take over, Dr. Miller said.

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.

Dr. Adams and Ravel had the PPA variant, Dr. Miller said.

When artists suffer damage to the right posterior brain, they lose the ability to be creative, Dr. Miller said. Dr. Adams’s story is the opposite. Her case and others suggest that artists in general exhibit more right posterior brain dominance. In a healthy brain, these areas help integrate multisensory perception. Colors, sounds, touch and space are intertwined in novel ways. But these posterior regions are usually inhibited by the dominant frontal cortex, he said. When they are released, creativity emerges.

Dr. Miller has witnessed FTD patients become gifted in landscape design, piano playing, painting and other creative arts as their disease progressed. source

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