Museums across USA are reaching out to people with Alzheimer's in order to bring the soothing power of art into the minds of those tackling dementia.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently received a major, two-year grant from the MetLife Foundation to expand its "Meet Me At MoMA" program, which offers small group sessions and workshops for people in the early to mid stages of Alzheimer's. Other museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, offer similar programs.

The museum is also conducting a study, in conjunction with the New York University School of Medicine, to assess the effects of art therapy on those with Alzheimer's disease. The "Meet Me at MoMA" program guides people with Alzheimer's through lively discussions of works by modern masters like Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. MoMA, like other museums, offers weekly or monthly tours for people in the early to middle stages of Alzheimer's disease. Individuals are encouraged to discuss the works and to express whatever thoughts and emotions come to mind. Seeing art and talking about it, like creating art, is thought to release trapped emotions and engage parts of the brain that keep the mind active and the memory intact. In fact, art may prove a vital creative outlet for many with the disease who can no longer read or have trouble speaking or understanding words. Art, like music, seems to touch areas deep in the brain that are vital for well-being and emotional health, regardless of age or mental capacities. That's why both art and music therapy are increasingly being used for people with Alzheimer's disease.

As a researcher interested in new natural treatments for persons with Alzheimer's Disease, I would like to take this news item to highlight the innovative project of Dr. Heidi Hamilton on “Talk in Response to Paintings: A Pilot Study of the Intersection of Art, Dementia, and Discourse" (in collaboration with Dr. John Zeisel, President, of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care Ltd., Massachusetts, founder of the “Artists for Alzheimer’s” program, and Dr. Mike Bird, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Greater Southern Area Health Service, Queanbeyan, New South Wales), August 2007-present. This study focuses on linguistic analysis in order to provide powerful evidence of the cognitive and social effects of such programs on participants. According to Dr. Hamilton, the findings of this study will illuminate contextual features of the complex relationship between language and Alzheimer’s disease while simultaneously providing an important step toward improving the everyday lives of people living with this disease.

Picture: By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY




A new study published in Neuropsychology suggests that patients with AD seem to have trouble determining which pieces of information are more important than others. The researchers, led by Alan D. Castel of the University of California, Los Angeles, based their conclusions on a study of 109 people with an average age of 75. Some were in early stages of Alzheimer's, while others were cognitively healthy. Selecting what is important to remember, attending to this information, and then later recalling it can be thought of in terms of the strategic control of attention and the efficient use of memory. To examine whether aging and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) influenced this ability, the present study used a selectivity task, where the volunteers were asked to memorize a series of words, each of which had a point value associated with it. The higher the value of the word, they were told, the more important it was to remember it. The researchers said it might be that in early Alzheimer's the brain was already becoming less efficient at learning and memorizing. They added that it might be possible to train patients to improve their memory strategies.

New evidence suggests that in Alzheimer's Disease part of the initial impairment lies in attentional control (see Balota & Faust, 2001, and Perry & Hodges, 1999) and it can lead to impairments in:

(1) Enconding and maintaining relevant information in Working Memory
(2) Inhibitory control
(3) Retrieval and response control

According to this study, the ability to selectively encode information is likely dependent on several possibly interrelated abilities, including inhibitory control, working memory capacity, monitoring, and metacognitive control related to using performance on previous trials to update resource allocation strategies. Although previous research has widely documented impairments in memory in old age and AD, the present study shows that AD is also associated with a specific deficit in being selective and strategic about encoding operations, which likely contributes to their poorer memory efficiency.

Personally, I think that the results of this study are very interesting to gain an insight also into the nature of communication impairments in Alzheimer. Both, memory-attention and communication deficits are interconnected, so that, I am focusing my thesis project on how persons with AD manage knowledge in talk. I consider that, at the same time, it should be appropriated to carry out new studies on that issue but beyond the word-level and well-controlled experimental environments. That is, research with ecological validity into how persons with AD communicate and interact with their interlocutors in real world-settings are needed in order to comprehend how these strategies for knowledge management are set and which their real deficits in communication, memory and attention are.

Journal reference:

Alan D. Castel, David A. Balota, and David P. McCabe. Memory Efficiency and the Strategic Control of Attention at Encoding: Impairments of Value-Directed Remembering in Alzheimer's Disease. Neuropsychology, Vol. 23, No. 3