Neuropsychology is the subspecialty of clinical psychology that studies the relationships between the brain and human behavior. Clinical neuropsychology focuses on the diagnosing of brain disorders, assessment and evaluation of cognitive functioning, and the design of effective interventions. It also looks at the two-way relationship between the brain and psychological conditions. As a field, it investigates how mental illnesses and psychological conditions affect the nervous system, as well as the ways that changes in the brain due to illnesses, injuries, chemicals and other environmental factors likewise affect behavior.
Neuropsychologists evaluate the impact of disease or injury on a person’s functioning and provide treatments that help return them to a more useful level of functioning. Anything that affects the brain affects how a person behaves, feels and thinks. Brain injuries or neurological illnesses can lead to:
- problems with memory
- disturbances of mood
- perception of reality
- problems learning
- sensory-motor disturbances
Concepts in Neuropsychology: The State of The Science
Anatomists have known the brain has a major role in behavior, cognition, and emotion for millennia, but it was not until the latter 19th century that scientists began trying to understand exactly how the brain works through empirical or research based methods.
Knowledge about the physical structure of the brain and its many tissues and nerve tracts on various chemical, molecular and cellular levels has progressed at a staggering rate over the last forty years. One of the earliest discoveries of the modern era involved the brain’s cellular signaling mechanisms. The proper working of brain tissue relies on chemicals known as neurotransmitters that are produced by specialized areas in the brain. Neurotransmitters are responsible for brain cells called neurons being able to communicate with each other. Brain cells don’t actually touch each other and rely on many different neurotransmitters to form neural circuits. Neurotransmitters have been implicated in many psychological disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
It’s been well understood for about a century that different areas of the brain are responsible for particular functions. This concept is known as localization of function. During the last few decades, neuropsychologists have come to understand that areas of the brain share responsibility for tasks. For example, understand speech and producing speech are two separate functions that work closely together via the interaction of two separate areas of the brain. Broca’s area, found in the lower portion of the brain’s left frontal lobe is responsible for the production of speech. Wernicke’s area, although still in the brain’s left hemisphere, is located far to the back of the brain. Wernicke’s area is responsible for understanding speech. The two areas work together to allow people to understand speech and produce it.
Similarly, many of the functions we assume are controlled by one area of the brain are made possible by many interactions from different areas. Overall, localization of function remains valid, but only broadly.
Another crucial concept is neuroplasticity. The brain grows in sophistication and complexity throughout life. In the process, the brain “learns” what connections and pathways are most useful and most utilized. Other pathways are shut down through the process of synaptic pruning. Synaptic pruning takes place first from about age two through age five, but there are no hard and fast age-based rules about brain development.
Synaptic pruning means that adults have fewer potential pathways in their brains than children, but adult neural circuits are more efficient and effective than those of children. Children have more neurons and more possible connections, but many of those connections are either not used or are not useful. When it comes to the brain, more neurons do not equate a “better brain.” Rather, it is the usefulness and effectiveness of those neurological pathways that are important.
Neuropsychology and Changing Views of the Brain
Memory and learning are deeply important parts of neuropsychology. As recently as the late 20th century, neuropsychologists believed that by our adolescent years our brains were as developed as they would ever be. They also thought that the brain did not produce new neurons and that physical brain damage did not heal. Research by Tortora and Grabowski (1996) indicates that the actions of learning and memory are reliant on the brain’s ability to grow and change. More recent research indicates that brain tissue grows throughout our lifespans, simply at a slower rate. The brain is also able to heal physical damage to varying degrees.
The Importance of Neuropsychology
The brain’s ability to heal after illness or injury is critically important to neuropsychology. Neuropsychologists are often concerned with assessing conditions that harm brain health, such as traumatic brain injury (TBI), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and brain recovery after strokes. Neuropsychologists carry out complex psychometric testing that determines the degree of injury a person’s brain has undergone due to disease or injury. This kind of assessment is vital to creating a treatment plan.
Some neuropsychologists treat problems with learning, such as dyslexia. Others, such as developmental neuropsychologists, address issues that arise from disorders like autism spectrum disorder.
Clinical Neuropsychology, Psychotherapy and Neurology
Although neuropsychologists can be counselors and therapists, typically neuropsychologists are not “talk” therapists. Instead, clinical neuropsychologists conduct psychometric examinations and assessments that allow for the creation of treatment interventions.
Neuropsychology is a branch of psychology and it is fairly rare for neuropsychologists to be medical doctors. Most are PhDs. Neurology is a medical specialty that deals with the health of the nervous system, including the blood vessels and tissues that support the nervous system. They may assess and treat disorders like traumatic brain injury and stroke, but they also address disorders of the peripheral nervous system, like peripheral neuralgia.
Neuropsychology Education and Training
The most common path to becoming a neuropsychologist involves earning a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree, followed by a PhD in neuropsychology. Some training programs compress the master’s and doctorate into a single degree. Several years of clinical postdoctoral work is required, then a neuropsychologist must fulfill any additional requirements to become licensed in a particular state. Licensure is necessary in order to practice neuropsychology.
B.S. Psychology | Arkansas State University
M.A. Rehabilitation Counseling | Arkansas State University
M.A. English | Arkansas State University
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