Blogging with Parkinson's

A personal perspective on Young Onset Parkinson's

Creativity induced by Parkinson’s Drugs?

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I really don’t want to believe this, but there is a theory that some drugs used to treat Parkinson’s can increase creativity.

Why don’t I want to believe it? Because it’s my creativity. It’s not Parkinson’s, and it’s not the drug’s. I feel very possessive of my creativity. I had it long before my dopamine levels went haywire and I have long felt that it is an important part of me.

So, without getting any more emotional about this issue, let’s look at the science. (There will be a couple of arty pictures to look at, too, and I shall write a second post describing how I think that this applies to me.)

This is the paper that seems to have started it all off:

Inzelberg, Rivka
Behavioral Neuroscience, Vol 127(2), Apr 2013, 256-261. doi: 10.1037/a0031052
Special Section: Non-Motor Dysfunctions in Parkinson’s Disease.

It got reported in January this year, and I completely missed it; a seldom-seen friend mentioned it to me yesterday, and I decided to find out more.

The abstract (always a good place to start) says:

Despite the prominent loss of motor skills, artistic capacities remain preserved in Parkinson’s disease (PD). Furthermore, artistic creativity may emerge in art-naïve PD patients treated with levodopa and dopamine agonists. The present review discusses reported PD patients who developed enhanced artistic skills under anti-Parkinsonian therapy and the course of this phenomenon in the clinical context. It is unclear whether creative drive is related to dopamine dysregulation, and the mechanisms remain speculative. The delineation of the particular constellation that enables this emergence in PD patients may shed light on the comprehension of the concept of creativity in general. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved)

Essentially, Professor Rivka Inzelberg of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine has noticed that her own patients were apparently more creative, and duly conducted a review of the literature. She found several reported instances of artistic skills being “enhanced” while taking drugs to counter Parkinson’s symptoms, but doesn’t draw any definitive conclusions about how or why this might be. She does, however, suggest that findings in this area (that is, creativity in Parkinson’s patients) could be used to understand the nature of creativity in the general populace.

Media reports inflated this into such headlines as “Doping in the Fine Arts? Dopamine May Be a Creativity Wonder Drug” (Healthline), which seems quite bizarre, and makes me think about the highly unlikely situation whereby artist entering high profile competitions have to complete medical questionnaires or take a drug test. Would I have been disqualified from entering work into the Royal Academy Summer exhibition (rejected; accepted into commercial gallery’s Not the Royal Academy exhibition; not sold; collected yesterday) or the Royal Society of Marine Artists Open (passed digital submission; rejected; collected yesterday)?

  perranuthnoeframed-s5pc

Avebury Sheep and Waves Breaking on Perranuthnoe Beach:
collected from London yesterday

No, I don’t think so. These big competitions make money from every hopeful – they charge an entry fee (usually around £15 per work, but they do vary).

Science Daily has a more measured article, with more details from Professor Inzelberg.

The article is illustrated with a stikingly Van-Gogh-esque work by one of Inzelberg’s patients; Inzelberg herself cites Van Gogh, “who suffered from psychosis. It’s possible that his creativity was the result of this psychosis, thought to be caused by a spontaneous spiking of dopamine levels in the brain.”

Dopamine is, as regular readers of this blog will know, the chemical that is in short supply in the brain of someone with Parkinson’s. It is instrumental in motor control, and also in the brain’s “reward system”.

The article continues:

It’s possible that these patients are expressing latent talents they never had the courage to demonstrate before, [Inzelberg] suggests. Dopamine-inducing therapies are also connected to a loss of impulse control, and sometimes result in behaviors like excessive gambling or obsessional hobbies. An increase in artistic drive could be linked to this lowering of inhibitions, allowing patients to embrace their creativity. Some patients have even reported a connection between their artistic sensibilities and medication dose, noting that they feel they can create more freely when the dose is higher.

Whoah! That last sentence? I don’t think I like that.

Some people believe it, though. Look at this extract from another abstract:

A small proportion of patients with Parkinson’s disease (PD) develop a dopamine dysregulation syndrome (DDS). [… Some] PD patients engaged in a creative and artistic profession […] compulsively abuse dopaminergic drugs to maintain or enhance their artistic creativity. […] Apart from the known risk factors—young age at PD onset, male gender, heavy alcohol consumption, illegal drug use, and history of affective disorder—engagement in a creative or artistic profession may be an additional risk factor for developing DDS. © 2010 Movement Disorder Society

Schwingenschuh, P., Katschnig, P., Saurugg, R., Ott, E. and Bhatia, K. P. (2010), Artistic profession: A potential risk factor for dopamine dysregulation syndrome in Parkinson’s disease?. Mov. Disord., 25: 493–496. doi: 10.1002/mds.22936

(Due to my reluctance to accept that the drugs make a real difference, I think this is not a likely future path for me.)

The article goes on to mention the therapeutic effects of creativity – something I very much believe in – and to reiterate Inzelberg’s suggestion that further “research could provide valuable insights into creativity in healthy populations, too.” I daresay that she’s right.

A quick survey of a selection of abstracts available online reveals several instances of creativity being apparently induced or enhanced by Parkinson’s drugs. A few of them are listed below:

This latter article talks about “artistic-like production”, which is a bizarre phrase implying that the art created by the human subjects is not art.

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7 thoughts on “Creativity induced by Parkinson’s Drugs?

  1. Very interesting and I really do understand your angst at Parkinson’s trying to take credit for your creativity; this disease has zero shame!
    It’s great to see a new post from you. Where’ve you been???

    • Short answer: painting 🙂
      I haven’t had as much time to blog since starting work again, even after reducing my hours (for the sake of the family, not for Parkinson’s or for painting, although the latter does occasionally get done… ).

  2. creativity without talent and hard work wouldn’t cause much of a result, even if the treatment has a creative side effect, the results of that are all yours. I have been pondering lately the effects of embodiment on creative pursuits, it is an interesting area, but your work is all your own 🙂

    • I can see that the medication might increase my desire to paint; I can see that it might free any inhibitions I might have. I resent the implication that creativity can be incorporated into a tablet.

      • All those acid-taking 60s types might disagree with you on your final point. See for example
        http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02791072.1989.10472150

        The human brain is a biophysichemical noodle soup. Science dictates that all its myriad functions result from chemical effects. There’s no reason why creativity shouldn’t be incorporated into a tablet! (Those who believe in spirits / souls obviously have grounds to differ with this.)

  3. Ahhh…wonderful post, Amanda! So much to digest… I definitely share your protective attitude toward your creativity. Since I’ve been creative and involved in art all of my life, I think that I can safely say that it didn’t originate with my PD. And since I’ve only recently started taking a dopamine agonist, the dopamine drugs can’t claim any victories here, either

    This sentence did resonate with me, though: “It’s possible that these patients are expressing latent talents they never had the courage to demonstrate before…” Now, there’s a concept that I can grasp. I definitely credit my diagnosis as the catalyst for finally getting out my pencils and getting serious about drawing again. The other part that I can relate to is the fact that one feels calmer, and therefore less symptomatic, when pursuing a personal passion. And while that passion is art for some, it may be fishing or swimming for others.

    A fascinating topic to be sure; thank you for such a thorough, informative post!!

  4. I do credit Levodopa with making me more in touch with my spiritual side and meditation. I’m rigidity dominant which has a faster progression so tapping into my spiritual self has helped me deal with the poor prognosis.

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