What is Neuropsychology?

what is neuropsychology

What is neuropsychology? Neuropsychology is the subspecialty of clinical psychology that studies the relationships between the brain and human behavior.  Clinical neuropsychology focuses on:

  • diagnosing of brain disorders
  • assessment and neuropsychological evaluation of cognitive functioning
  • design of effective interventions
  • connection of cognitive and behavioral functions
  • the two-way relationship between the brain and psychological conditions

As a field, it investigates neuropsychological functioning and how mental disorders and psychological conditions affect the brain and nervous system. It also looks at the ways that changes in the brain due to illnesses, injuries, chemicals and other environmental factors likewise affect behavior.

Neuropsychologist Vs. Psychologist

Neuropsychologist Vs. Psychologist

Can you define neuropsychologist? Neuropsychologists evaluate the impact of disease or injury on a person’s cognitive function. They provide treatments that help return them to a more useful level of cognitive function. Anything that affects the brain affects cognitive functions and how a person:

  • behaves
  • feels
  • 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 for a long time that the brain has a major role in:

  • behavior
  • cognition
  • emotion

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 brain structures 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
  • schizophrenia

It’s been well understood for about a century that specific brain regions 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, understanding 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 brain functions we assume are controlled by one area of the brain are made possible by many interactions from different areas. Overall, localization of brain 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

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)
  • brain tumors
  • learning disorders
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Strokes

By problem solving issues in their daily life, neuropsychologists can help determine strengths and weaknesses of different brain areas. Neuropsychologists carry out complex psychometric testing that determines the degree of injury a person’s brain has undergone due to disease or injury. This neuropsychological testing is vital to creating a treatment plan. After running neuropsychological tests and neuropsychological evaluations, cognitive neuropsychologists will examine the test results and use their specialized knowledge to provide diagnostic clarification to determine the patient’s condition and determine treatment plans, such as deep brain stimulation.

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 a clinical neuropsychologist can be a counselor and therapist, typically clinical 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. They may assess with neuropsychological testing and treat disorders like traumatic brain injury and stroke. They also address disorders of the peripheral nervous system, like peripheral neuralgia.

Clinical psychologists who specialize in neuropsychology are experts in understanding the relationship between the brain and behavior. They assess, diagnose, and treat individuals with neurological and psychological disorders.

Neuropsychology Schooling and Training

There are many neuropsychology degree programs. Are you wondering how to become a neuropsychologist? Maybe you’re wondering, “How long does it take to become a neuropsychologist?” The most common path to becoming a neuropsychologist involves earning a neuropsychologist degree. Actually, it involves earning a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree, followed by a PhD in neuropsychology. You could even earn an online neuropsychology degree. You could earn your masters in neuropsychology online. Some training programs compress the master’s and doctorate into a single neuro psychology degree. Several years of clinical postdoctoral work is required, then a neuropsychologist must fulfill any additional requirements to become licensed in a particular state. After earning a neuropsychology degree, licensure is necessary in order to practice neuropsychology.

Clifton Stamp

B.S. Psychology | Arkansas State University

M.A. Rehabilitation Counseling | Arkansas State University

M.A. English | Arkansas State University

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