Art Therapy for Parkinson’s
“It just takes you out of the disease,” said Andrea Casson. “Parkinson’s disease is feeling like you're losing control every day, and this reminds you that you're not” . Andrea Casson is one of many participants in New York University’s (NYU) clinical trial to help treat Parkinson’s patients with art therapy - a clinical trial with promising primary findings.
Hopefully, Casson will not be the only one to see positive results with this Parkisons’s treatment. Currently, about 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s every year, and more than ten million people across the world are living with the disease already . Current drug therapies to help treat Parkinson’s target the disease’s symptoms by addressing the decrease in dopamine production associated with the condition. However, there are no ways to directly administer dopamine to the brain and, over time, these therapies lose their effectiveness .
These days, more people are open to using alternative therapy; one such alternative treatment is art therapy.
Art therapy is the process of using art to connect with people’s emotions, body, and environment, and it can include activities such as painting and sculpting clay. Traditionally, this form of therapy has been used for improving mental health, often targeting anxiety or PTSD to promote self-esteem and selfreflection for patients in places like Veterans Affairs hospitals and psychiatric rehabilitation facilities. However, recently, art therapy is being considered not just as a psychological treatment, but also as a therapy that can directly improve the symptoms of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s.
In a study carried out by NYU comparing baseline fMRI data to data collected from Parkinson’s patients receiving art therapy treatments, scientists found increased functional connectivity within brain networks responsible for attention and control in the experimental cohort. Additionally, they found higher eye-tracking capabilities and Navon test scores, a test used to identify letters . In general, patients’ visual-cognitive skills, visual exploration abilities, and motor skills–all features that are impacted in Parkinson’s–saw improvement . Across various studies, researchers have observed similar results showing that Parkinson’s patients experience an increase in their pleasure through reward center activation, motor control, increased concentration, as well as an improved sense of self; all represent valuable physical and psychological benefits .
But why would this happen?
One suspected reason is that art therapy helps release dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter believed to cause Parkinson’s. When a patient has Parkinson's, the neurons in the substantia nigra region of their brain begin to die, which causes a reduction in dopamine production . This leads to a decrease in motor function and can lead to changes in sleep, mood, swallowing, vision problems, and more.
To target this, one major form of Parkinson’s treatment is dopamine replacement therapy. However, art therapy is considered to be a way of triggering the same reward pathways of the brain in a natural manner .
However, it is far more complicated than just a reward pathway. Not only does art therapy activate the reward centers of the brain, but it also helps to stimulate primary sensory areas like the primary visual cortex, auditory cortex, memory zones, and emotional areas–creating a circuit that involves the whole brain . This is especially important in Parkinson's as it affects all regions of the brain. For instance, one of the challenges faced by patients with Parkinson’s involves difficulty distinguishing between colors. These patients also generally struggle to adapt to dark and bright lights, often due to irregular eye movements. Changes like these negatively impact an individual’s sense of perception, often leading to freezing gait, in which patients cannot move and feel as though they might fall. Art therapy can help give patients a controlled environment for them to understand depth perception better, and process their surroundings without the stresses of their normal environment .
In addition, art therapy is far more affordable than traditional treatment options. Current treatments for Parkison’s are extremely expensive, with medications costing an average of $2,500 per year . Surgical interventions can cost up to $100,000 per person . For many of the art therapy studies, professionals were willing to provide supplies, further reducing the burden of cost .
Unfortunately, there are concerns with art therapy. While art therapy can help people improve their motor functions, others may find the creative process frustrating and stress-inducing, arguably defeating the purpose of the treatment .
On top of that, art therapy, much like other Parkinson's therapies, only focuses on the symptoms of the disease. This is why many support art therapy as a supplemental treatment only, despite its numerous benefits . Regardless, art therapy has been shown to improve quality of life, which should always be the ultimate goal. Ultimately, while art therapy may help Parkinson’s patients engage with their sense of creativity and innovation, its benefits are anything but imagined.
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