The brain disease called CTE is in the news lately. The degenerative disease occurs in people who suffer head trauma and has been found in the brains of deceased NFL players, triggering a debate on the safety of America’s most popular sport. One difficulty in combating CTE is that it can only be diagnosed posthumously, when it’s — literally — too late. Posthumous diagnoses are made by examining the brain, and players like soccer star Brandi Chastain have already agreed to donate their brains (after death) to be studied by science. But posthumous diagnosis aren’t new — and they don’t always work with such solid evidence.
The artist Vincent van Gogh, now a legend and art world tour de force, committed suicide at age 37 when he was still a commercially unsuccessful painter. While living van Gogh had been diagnosed with various conditions, including temporal lobe epilepsy. But since the painter’s death, “well over 150 physicians have ventured a perplexing variety of diagnoses of his illness,” according to Dietrich Blumer at Psychiatry Online. These include Meniere’s disease. Yet what seems to fit best with what is now known are van Gogh’s “clearly bipolar aspects.” His depression was often bookended by “sustained periods of increasingly high energy and enthusiasm.” Blumer cites the “episodicity” of van Gogh’s mental changes as one of the chief reasons for believing the wildly creative van Gogh had bipolar disorder. But unlike with athletes, scientists cannot examine van Gogh’s brain to know for sure. And even if they could, bipolar disorder isn’t revealed the way CTE is. We have left only the guesses, and the art.