Neuropsychology is the field of study that examines the psychological and neurological aspects of the brain. It is a component of neuroscience, the scientific discipline of the nervous system. Neuroscience is an attempt to understand the human mind and the way people interact with the world. Neuropsychologists study the changes that have taken place after some sort of physical damage to the brain. Most neuropsychologists try to help patients in a clinical setting or testify in court cases to explain patients’ responses to stimuli or new treatments in clinical disorders. In some cases, this involves examining people who might have suffered a lesion to the brain and help explain how different areas of the brain impact behavior and cognition. The first thing a neuropsychologist will examine, when a patient has a cognitive disorder, is whether the problem is due to a disease or psychological disorder. A cognitive disorder refers to how the brain processes and stores information. These disorders can be genetic, environmental, or caused by an injury, and neurological and psychological tools are used to determine the basis of the disease.
Neuroimaging refers to imaging techniques used to see the brain. Researchers are able to study the brain using technology to measure the brain’s responses to tasks. These techniques might consist of tests such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or Positron Emission Topography (PET) to see problems with the brain or standardized tests to evaluate memory, intelligence, visual retention, and word association.
Recently, the field of neuropsychology has used computer simulations to study the human brain. These simulations have proven to be a very effective way to study the consequences of brain injuries. Most neuropsychology is conducted at a clinical level; however, many studies are experimental. Experimental neuropsychology typically evaluates the effect of different inputs on healthy individuals. These studies are often cited in popular publications.
There has always been much interest and debate surrounding the brain’s function, and the field of neuropsychology has contributed to understanding its complexity. At one time, people did not understand that the brain’s structures and systems were interrelated with psychological processing. Through major advances and testing, we now know differently. Neuropsychologists evaluate if brain functions are restricted to one area of the brain or if regions or centers of the brain are interconnected. They have found that most functions are interconnected enough to coordinate cognitive functions and biochemical processes.
Controversy does occur due to the variations in brain injuries from person to person; therefore, replicating symptoms is nearly impossible. These affects cannot be replicated in a laboratory. Many patients suffer a brain injury due to accidents, strokes, Parkinson’s, war, or developmental disorders such as learning or behavior. Neuropsychology studies the effect of AIDS, cognition, multiple sclerosis, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, alcoholism, and addiction.
Two major areas of neuropsychology include clinical neuropsychology and cognitive psychology. Clinical neuropsychologists receive certifications by the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology (ABCN) or the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology (AACN) and work in healthcare settings treating patients with head injuries, strokes, or disorders. Cognitive neuropsychologists do not treat patients or provide interventions, but typically study brain disorders at a public or private research institute. Most of these jobs will require a PhD to conduct research or teach at the university level.
Besides teaching, other careers in neuropsychology include forensics, rehabilitation, dementia, neurogenetics, neuropathology, behavioral, or school neuropsychology. The average salary for neuropsychologists is about $90,000 – $159,000 per year. The largest employers are the federal government and psychologists. The highest paid employees work in physician offices, education, research, and hospitals. Demographically, the highest salaries are enjoyed in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, and Maryland.
A neuropsychologist is differs from a medical doctor in that he studies aspects of the brain. Understanding the brain, in regards to memory, attention, concentration, motor skills, reasoning, and cognitive and psychological skills, is usually discerned by a range of testing to determine if the brain is functioning the way it should. Two types of tests, or “batteries”, are commonly used- the Halstead-Reitan and the Luria-Nebraska. Both tests have been used for many years to examine IQ, brain trauma, or the existence of pathology in the brain. The tests will show very different results than an X-Ray, MRI, or CT scan. The only more reliable testing tool is an autopsy.
A neuropsychological test differs in that it is administered by a school or clinical psychologist. Besides the fact that the neuropsychologist has more experience in medical, behavioral, cognitive, educational, and rehabilitative services, he will also make recommendations based on a patient’s medical history and background.
In children, neuropsychological testing can help diagnose attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, poor communication skills, and behavioral and social issues. A neuropsychologist may work in conjunction with other pediatric specialists such as a pediatrician, speech and language therapist, or child psychiatrist. Children mature at different rates and are faced with daily social and academic challenges. Some challenges may not arise until later in life as the child develops. Early diagnosis will help a clinician, family, and child prepare for a child’s disability with less frustration. In some cases, evaluations may be used to detect autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and cerebral palsy. The tests may also be able to detect anemia and kidney disease.
Neuropsychological tests may be administered and scored by psychology assistants or psychometricians. A neuropsychologist will interpret the results and be responsible for observing, interacting with, and examining the child. At times, parents and teachers may be interviewed and medical records observed.
The child might need to visit the neuropsychologist more than once to build a relationship and for the professional to administer the tests and results. Along with the time, there is usually a substantial cost for the testing and treatment plan. The precision of the results are critical to the medical care, rehabilitation planning, and in some cases, eligibility for benefits and services for months or years. In adults, the tests can be used to evaluate head trauma, seizures, and autoimmune disorders, psychosomatic disorders, or mood and anxiety disorders. They can help determine why a person may be having problems in employment or daily functioning. Results can show signs of dementia or stroke. This can help family members make decisions about a person’s competency or independence.
When choosing a neuropsychologist, it is wise to choose a licensed professional. You can ask questions about a professional’s education, background, and years experience in the field. Often, a family physician can recommend a respected neuropsychologist. As a note, if the professional works in a hospital setting, this usually means that the person has good credentials and has been trained in treating serious and rare conditions.
In most states, a neuropsychologist is licensed as a psychologist. Some states allow a licensed psychologist to perform psychological or neuropsychological assessments. Other states will allow an unlicensed provider to administer assessments and reports by their name. It is, therefore, important that a client be aware of the qualifications of her provider. To practice in the field, a clinical neuropsychologist will most likely have a doctoral degree in psychology from an accredited university, complete an internship in a relevant area of psychology, two years full-time experience in the study of clinical neuropsychology or neuroscience, and a license to practice in his state. For those professionals who are board certified, this means that they have received additional training, supervision, and knowledge in the field of clinical neuropsychology.