#AANAM – Art Therapy Can Improve Psychological Well-Being In ALS Patients, Study Reports

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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Making digital art can be beneficial for the psychological health of people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a proof-of-concept study showed.

The findings, “BRIDGE: Dynamic Imagery and Art Therapy in ALS- A Clinical Study to Improve Patient Expression and Wellness,” were presented in a poster session at the 2019 American Academy of Neurology (AAN) Annual Meeting, being held through May 10 in Philadelphia.

In addition to its physical effects, ALS can cause a significant psychological strain for people living with it. The progressive loss of speech, and the resulting limitations in verbal ability, can have a particular impact on patients’ ability to express themselves, their wants, and their needs. This can limit quality of life for people with ALS.

“Patients often experience fear, depression, anxiety and challenges of purpose and meaning,” the poster said.

The BRIDGE study explored new ways — from an artistic perspective — to improve communication with people with ALS, aimed at enhancing their self-expression and improving their well-being.

First author Juliet King talked about the project on site to ALS News Today.

“This is a pilot project that we worked on at the Department of Neurology at the Indiana University School of Medicine and ultimately the purpose of this project was to create a digital interface that could be used with patients that have ALS as a way to explore their capacities for self-expression,” King said.

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“As a very beginning project it holds a lot of promise for the use of brain computer interface to create intervention strategies for people that have limited mobility such as those with ALS,” she added.

Eight people with ALS were assigned to a multidisciplinary team that included a certified art therapist and a dynamic sculptor. Patients created digital art using a combination of noninvasive physiological data sensors, including eye tracking and skin response. The sculptor would help translate that data into visual imagery, while the art therapist would guide patients toward exploring their psychological state, improving their ability to express themselves, and defining therapeutic goals.

For six patients, quantitative (number-based) data was collected, primarily through standardized assessments including the ALS Assessment Questionnaire (ALSAQ-40). The Visual Analog Scale (VAS) for mood and energy was measured before and after participants made their art.

All six of the patients for whom data was available reported that engaging in this art therapy was  “beneficial to me,” and all of them also said they would “recommend art therapy to other patients and their caregivers.” Further, five of the six patients said that making art therapy “allowed me to relax.”

“This allowed people who didn’t have movement to be able to create imagery and then process what it meant to them,” King said.

There were no adverse events associated with engaging in art therapy.

“Moving forward, the goal is to get the technology that would allow us to capture the data more completely. That is happening in the field. There is a burgeoning field called arts-based BCI (brain computer interface) where people are creating art work using this kind of technology so we would be able to use more advanced technology, but in a more psycho-therapeutic context, which would be the goal of the art therapist,” King said.

While the study is quite small, the researchers said it serves as a proof-of-concept that art therapy can have a range of psychological and emotional benefits for ALS patients. The researchers recommend further study of art therapy for people with ALS.