What is Neuropsychology?
Neuropsychology is the study of the relationship between psychological actions and the physical structures of the brain. Although the mental health community has long been interested in this field, neuropsychology began to pick up steam when new imaging technologies in the 1950s and 1960s opened new avenues of research.
Behavioral health professionals in this field specifically look at how external triggers create psychological events that impact the neurons in the brain. While researchers have discovered a lot about these interactions, it is a rapidly evolving field.
The field comprises of two main types of neuropsychology: cognitive and clinical. Cognitive neuropsychologists conduct research that helps further the field. Clinical professionals in the area use the conclusions of their cognitive colleagues to help patients.
In clinical neuropsychology, professionals use image testing to diagnose brain disorders or assess the damage that a known issue caused. Patients should only see neuropsychologists who have the right credentials. The American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology (AACN) and the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology (ABCN) both certify these professionals.
Neuropsychology can help patients with several disorders, including:
- Tourette Syndrome
- Developmental delays and disorders
- Substance addiction
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Recurring concussions
- Learning disabilities
- Bipolar disorder
Neuropsychologists may run different types of tests depending on which issues the patients experience.
What is Neuropsychological Testing?
Neuropsychological testing can offer diagnostic and treatment insights for mental health disorders, much like CAT scans and blood tests do for physical problems. The evaluation process may involve several different types of tests, depending on what the care team needs to know about the patient’s cognitive abilities.
Neuropsychological testing is not physically painful. However, it can be frustrating or emotionally taxing. Some exams are like stress tests for one’s cognitive or emotional abilities. Patients who worry about these procedures should feel free to have their care teams explain the methods in detail. Remember that the tests will not push further than you can handle and that the results will aid in the healing process.
Which Neuropsychological Disorders Does it Test for?
A neuropsychological evaluation can either assess the extent of a known issue or lead to new diagnoses. Practitioners can use them to help patients with ailments that people typically consider physical problems, including stroke, Alzheimer’s, and head injuries. These exams can also uncover mental health disorders, including anxiety and bipolar disorder.
Assessing Damage of Known Problems
If someone has received a diagnosis that involves the brain, a neuropsychological exam can help pinpoint the problems. For example, a practitioner may test a stroke victim to see which parts of the brain the event affected.
These types of neuropsychological tests can help patients with several disorders, including:
- Memory loss
Learning and Developmental Disorders
When a child does not meet developmental milestones or has difficulty learning, neuropsychological testing can help diagnose the problem and allow parents to find the appropriate treatment. Diagnoses in this category include:
- Sensory Processing Disorder
- Language disorders
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Undetected seizure disorders
When a patient experiences mood problems that are difficult to diagnose, the care team may recommend neuropsychological testing. These exams, which can include imaging, can help identify any number of issues, including:
- Bipolar disorder
- Severe depression
In many cases, doctors and mental health professionals may not know exactly what they need to test for. Patients may present with symptoms that could be the result of any number of disorders. For example, doctors may not know if someone’s memory loss is due to dissociation after trauma, a TBI, or early onset Alzheimer’s.
In these cases, professionals may run batteries of tests to rule out certain disorders or get confirmation of others. This process is known as a differential diagnosis. During differential diagnosis, the doctor will also take the patient’s full medical history. Specific physical exams may also be part of this process, depending on the patient’s symptoms.
Types of Neuropsychological Tests
Practitioners generally break these exams into seven categories based on what skills they test:
- Executive Function
- Multiple Functions
Although many people think of memory as one brain function, it has five distinct components” semantic, episodic, procedural, priming, and short-term. Memory-focused neuropsychological tests can examine one or more of these types of memory at a time.
Some cognitive functions, such as language, are particularly sensitive to physical damage. Intelligence neuropsychological tests focus on those that may be more resistant to TBIs. As such, these exams can aid in the differential diagnosis process.
The results of an intelligence test are not helpful on their own, however. Instead, doctors must compare results to healthy individuals with the same level of education and similar occupations.
Speaking, writing, and reading functions may diminish after patients experience TBIs, seizures, strokes, or other ailments. These tests determine which parts of language clients have lost and to what extent.
These exams evaluate a patient’s ability to complete complex tasks, including problem-solving, planning, organization, and selective attention. The type of test a doctor recommends depends on which of the cognitive functions the patient may have lost.
Each of these tests covers three areas of cognition and the ways these functions interact with one another:
- Visual Perception
- Visual Integration
- Visual Construction
For example, the clock test requires patients to draw an analog clock from memory. Professionals then evaluate the placement of the numbers, hands, and other elements.
Dementia is a different disorder that requires equally unique diagnostic testing. Practitioners may use the Clinical Dementia Rating and the Dementia Rating Scale to determine if a patient has the disease.
Some neuropsychological exams assess functions from several of the above categories at once. For example, the Cognistat (The Neurobehavioral Cognitive Status Examination) examines all of the following five areas of neurological behavior:
Many tests exist to help professionals and patients look at several cognitive functions at once. Neuropsychologists will use patient symptoms to decide which tests can help.