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Parkinson’s Sufferers Find Peace, Purpose in Creative Pursuits

  • A CEO with minimal artistic experience suddenly uncovers a hidden passion for painting.
  • A sociologist is struck with the inspiration to create intricate necklaces representing the customs of different cultures from around the world.
  • A person with no flair for the written word unexpectedly publishes a book.

The real-life people living these seemingly singular situations have one surprising thing in common: Parkinson's disease.

They are all also patients of Rivka Inzelberg, M.D., professor and Parkinson's disease specialist at the Sheba Medical Center, Department of Neurology.

"About two years ago I started to notice that some of my patients were painting, writing books and engaging in other creative pursuits," Inzelberg says.

Benefits of Parkinson's medications go beyond the physical

Why were so many of Inzelberg's patients suddenly experiencing unexpected surges in creativity?

Her answer, based on research conducted on case studies from around the world: it's all in the medications.

Parkinson's disease gradually destroys the dopamine-producing nerve cells in a person's brain. This leads to a host of different physical and mental symptoms, including depression, muscle pain and rigidity, tremors, issues with walking and balance, trouble swallowing and blinking.

Most Parkinson's treatments can reduce the tremors and rigidity that make daily tasks difficult for people with the disease. This may also enable them to more easily engage in artistic hobbies that require dexterity.

These treatments work by influencing the levels and functioning of dopamine, a multi-functional neurotransmitter, in a person's brain. Dopamine helps govern everything from voluntary movements to feelings of reward and pleasure.

What really intrigued Inzelberg weren't the physical effects of the treatments.

Her interest lay in the observation that people on certain types of Parkinson's prescriptions—specifically, dopamine precursors (Carbidopa/Levodopa), or dopamine receptor agonists (Mirapex, Parlodel, Requip, Neruopro or Apokyn)—not only saw a reduction in their physical symptoms, they also sometimes experienced a spike in their creative drive.

But, the effect is not universal.

"The jury is still out on this one," says Diane Breslow, MSW, LCSW, coordinator of the Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "These medications might unlock a new or hidden talent. It depends on a lot of things: which medication a person is taking, how artistic they were beforehand, etc."

Creativity: what's dopamine got to do with it?

According to Inzelberg, dopamine replacement therapies may pave the way for amplified creativity because they increase the activity of dopamine in the brain. This increase in activity may lower a person's inhibitions and enhance their level of overall arousal and focus on a particular creative pursuit.

The role that Parkinson's medications play in potentially reducing a person's apprehensions can sometimes leads to dangerously obsessive behaviors. Severe addictions to gambling and sexual activity have been seen in a certain individuals taking these prescriptions.

Though her recently published study is drawing new attention to the connection between dopamine replacement medications and increased creativity, Inzelberg is not the first to uncover the link.

In a 2012 study, a group of Italian researchers found that receiving dopamine therapy treatments for Parkinson's caused some people to develop new artistic skills (i.e. reading, writing, drawing, painting, etc.).

Not every individual was able to create a high-quality masterpiece, but 78 percent of those whose creativity was unleashed under the influence of the medications pursued more than one artistic avenue (e.g. painting and sculpting).

Finding comfort in creative pursuits

The incurable, degenerative nature of Parkinson's disease can make it an extremely difficult ailment to cope with. Sufferers are faced with the daily reality that their ability to perform routine tasks is gradually wearing away and current treatments can only do so much to slow this decline.

Art therapy has long been recognized as an effective way to help people struggling with the limitations of Parkinson's disease to express themselves and improve their motor functioning, according to Inzelberg.

"Some people find their creative ability is freed up," says Breslow. "Art becomes a way for them to regain some of what they have lost with the disease. It enables them to express themselves and hold on to their sense of independence."

She shares some comments, made by Parkinson's sufferers, on how engrossing themselves in artistic pursuits has affected their ability to cope with the disease:

  • "You have control over your art—even though you don't have control over this disease."
  • "Creativity takes your mind off of your disease."
  • "Art has become very soothing for me."

Breslow cautions that, like gambling and other common Parkinson's compulsions, art can become an obsession. If an individual feels so compelled to draw or paint that they neglect to take the time to sleep or eat, then their creativity is no longer therapeutic and they should see a doctor to help get their unchecked impulse under control.

Most of the time, art can be incredibly beneficial for people with Parkinson's, which is why Breslow says caregivers should encourage creative pursuits in their loved ones struggling with the ailment.

She suggests providing a loved one with a variety of artistic materials and mediums (most people, once they've mastered a particular pursuit, such as painting, like to move onto something else). As they create, ask them about their feelings and what they're trying to express through their artwork.

Art therapy won't alter the progression of Parkinson's, Breslow says, "Creative pursuits can enhance a person's quality of life. People are happier when they're engaged in an activity; art is that activity for some people."

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