15th January 1999
For immediate release
A breakthrough study in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease has pinpointed art therapy as a crucial resource for relieving the symptoms of people with dementia.
In particular, the Sussex University study has shown that art therapy can combat the depression often felt by Alzheimer's sufferers, with 50% of those taking part showing a significant improvement in mood levels at the end of the 10-week art therapy course.
According to Dr Jennifer Rusted - who conducted the study with Linda Sheppard and Dr Diane Waller, in conjunction with the local Alzheimer’s Disease Society and art therapy specialists - depression is a critical factor in the deteriorating condition of Alzheimer's sufferers: "It is now being recognised as a primary problem." She says "Performance is definitely affected by the fact that these people are thoroughly depressed by the problems they’ve got. If you can lift the depression, then impairments are at least limited to those caused by physical changes in the brain."
Art therapy is already used to treat people with dementia, but until now it has not been clear whether it was the therapy itself which was of benefit, or just the opportunity for sufferers to express themselves within a small group. As Jennifer Rusted points out, one of the most frustrating aspects of living with Alzheimer's is "not being taken seriously as a human being anymore," so any work which attempts to encourage self expression could be seen as beneficial. However, in this study it was shown quite clearly that small groups focusing on verbal self expression are actually ineffective, and they appeared especially so when compared to the breakthroughs made with art therapy treatment.
The study, which was the first ever control group evaluation involving art therapy and Alzheimer's, compared the depression levels of 10 dementia sufferers in a small group setting with those of 10 others who participated in art therapy. The improvements shown by the art therapy group can be explained partly by the fact that it relies on an alternative means of self expression to speech. Opportunities for those with dementia to express themselves are limited by impaired verbal skills, and art therapy taps a different 'channel' of expression with which sufferers might be more in tune. As Dr Rusted says, "an enormous amount of self expression is being lost because we’re not providing them with the right tools."
Art therapy is a confrontational, combative form of expression which enables demons to be exorcised in the same way as other forms of therapy, but doesn’t require verbally articulate responses. It is designed to 'work through' the feelings which may contribute to depression. People in the study made art which signified a desire for empowerment, such as models of racing cars and pictures of elephants. Others drew images of themselves trapped in bunkers, suggesting a sense of entrapment.
Although not everyone benefited from the therapy, those who did showed "quite remarkable improvement," according to Jennifer Rusted. Importantly, this improvement was still in evidence a month after the treatment had finished.
The research is still in its early stages, and Jennifer emphasises that even greater advances could be possible given the usual treatment programme of nine or ten months. With this length of time, behavioural and cognitive improvements could also be a possibility. According to Dr Rusted, if the results of longer tests prove as successful as this one, "art therapy may be used on a much wider scale, and our research will have made a real difference."
For further information please contact Sally Hall, Information Office, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 678335, email firstname.lastname@example.org, Dr Jennifer Rusted, School of Biological Sciences, Sussex University, Tel. 01273 678325/678058, Linda Sheppard, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678435/678058, Dr Diane Waller, Goldsmith’s College, Tel. 01273 685852, or Jo Harris, Publicity and Events Co-Ordinator, Brighton Area Branch, Alzheimer's Disease Society, Tel 01273 726266.
NB Graphs demonstrating the significant changes in depression levels are available, as are photographs of those taking part in the research.
For further information please contact Sally Hall, Information Office, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 678335, email