Effects of an art gallery intervention on stress and inflammatory responses in people with dementia: Dr Nathan D'Cuhna

Grant Program: RM Gibson Program
Awardee: Dr Nathan D'Cunha
Title of project: Effects of an art gallery intervention on stress and inflammatory responses in people with dementia
Year Awarded: 2018
Year of completion: 2020


In 2018, Dr Nathan D’Cunha received an RM Gibson Program grant that supported a project aimed at assessing the effect of participation in the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) Art and Dementia Program on biomarkers of chronic stress and inflammation in individuals with dementia, and to assess its effects on cognitive function, quality of life (QOL), and depressive symptoms.

The NGA Art and Dementia Program provides individuals with dementia opportunities to engage and interact with others and with artworks in a safe community-based setting.

‘We knew there was a lack of scientific evidence supporting low-cost, minimally intensive intervention programs aimed to promote social engagement and cultural enrichment in people with dementia that are supported by biological outcomes,’ says Nathan.

‘To our knowledge, changes in stress, inflammation, cognitive function, QOL, and depressive symptoms have not been quantitatively measured longitudinally in people with dementia living in residential aged care.’

For the project, Nathan recruited 28 participants from the Canberra region, including 27 in residential aged care or respite. In total, 25 participants completed the study and 22 provided viable saliva samples. From these, the project demonstrated self-reported improvements in QOL, reduced depressive symptoms and an improvement in the waking-to-evening salivary cortisol ratio.

This research was the first study to measure salivary responses in a pre- and post-study design. While the study was not controlled, it suggests that physiological changes are possible in only six weeks from engaging in a community-based, dementia-specific program.

‘Through this project, we learned that collecting saliva samples (four across the waking day) is possible for people with mild to moderate dementia, with support from care partners,’ says Nathan.

In November 2019, the NGA held a symposium where Nathan presented his findings. With over 20 art galleries from across Australia attending, the recognition of art and dementia programs across Australia is growing.

Read more about Nathan’s work at researchprofiles.canberra.edu.au/en/persons/nathan-dcunha.