Parkinson's experts across the world have been reporting a remarkable phenomenon — many patients treated with drugs to increase the activity of dopamine in the brain as a therapy for motor symptoms such as tremors and muscle rigidity are developing new creative talents, including painting, sculpting, writing and more.
Prof. Rivka Inzelberg of Tel Aviv Univ.'s Sackler Faculty of Medicine first noticed the trend in her own Sheba Medical Center clinic when the usual holiday presents from patients — typically chocolates or similar gifts — took a surprising turn. "Instead, patients starting bringing us art they had made themselves," she says.
Inspired by the discovery, Inzelberg sought out evidence of this rise in creativity in current medical literature. Bringing together case studies from around the world, she examined the details of each patient to uncover a common underlying factor — all were being treated with either synthetic precursors of dopamine or dopamine receptor agonists, which increase the amount of dopamine activity in the brain by stimulating receptors. Her report will be published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.
Dopamine is involved in several neurological systems, explains Inzelberg. Its main purpose is to aid in the transmission of motor commands, which is why a lack of dopamine in Parkinson's patients is associated with tremors and a difficulty in coordinating their movements.
But it's also involved in the brain's "reward system" — the satisfaction or happiness we experience from an accomplishment. This is the system which Inzelberg predicts is associated with increasing creativity. Dopamine and artistry have long been connected, she points out, citing the example of the Vincent 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.
There are seemingly no limits to the types of artistic work for which patients develop talents, observes Inzelberg. Cases include an architect who began to draw and paint human figures after treatment, and a patient who, after treatment, became a prize-winning poet though he had never been involved in the arts before.