Boston Globe (March 17, 2017): A Tragic Disease Robs Patients of Their Memory, But Makes Their Visual World Flourish

Publication Date: 
Fri, 03/17/2017

Carol Spence had been an accomplished artist all her life, first working in graphics, and then as a maker of handcrafted, miniature dolls, which she sold at craft shows and galleries.

Three years ago, without notice or explanation, she took exclusively to the canvas, creating work that little resembled her past work. Two-dimensional animals and people. Smiling fish, floating near butterflies. Frogs with a variety of facial expressions.

More recently, she lays these images against a backdrop of perfect, shaded squares.

“She’ll just go for hours at a time,” said her son-in-law, Padgett Berthiaume.

The shift was not just a stylistic change but also a curious symptom for some with frontotemporal dementia, a little-known degenerative brain disease that afflicts between 50,000 and 250,000 Americans. Spence, 68, was diagnosed with the condition in 2011.

The symptoms of FTD, as it’s known, vary, depending on where the disease first appears. When it starts on the right side of the frontal or temporal lobes, the patient’s personality changes, and he or she often struggles with social interactions.

If it starts on the left, as was the case with Spence, they lose their language abilities instead. But as patients’ spoken vocabulary dwindles, their interest in the visual world flourishes. Even patients with no previous interest in painting or sculpting, for instance, will often plunge themselves into these pursuits, sometimes obsessively.

Spence’s neurologist, Dr. Bradford C. Dickerson, said these flights of artistic creativity - or, in Spence’s case, a sharp change in creative expression - often surprise and mystify family members.