What is Neuropsychology?
While psychology focuses on our thoughts and behaviors, neuropsychology adds another layer, considering the brain’s actual physical structure in addition to our psychological traits. This increasingly popular field is at the cutting edge of much diagnosis and progress in the world of mental health.
There are two primary areas of study in neuropsychology: clinical neuropsychology and cognitive neuropsychology. Experts in the field of cognitive neuropsychology do research, while those in the clinical field apply those findings in a clinical setting.
When working with a neuropsychologist, it is best to partner with a credentialed mental health professional, preferably by the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology or the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology.
Neuropsychology helps with a range of disorders, including:
- Developmental delays
- Learning disabilities
- Substance abuse
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Tourette Syndrome
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Bipolar Disorder
Before treating a patient, a neuropsychologist will likely run an array of tests known as a neuropsych that can be used to confirm a diagnosis.
What is Neuropsychological Testing?
Neuropsychological testing, commonly referred to as a neuropsych, is a compilation of tests that look at everything from cognitive skills to executive function in a patient.
There is nothing physically stressful about a neuropsych, but it is complex and can take time. In some ways, a neuropsych is a stress test for a patient’s cognitive and emotional skills, but is not meant to push a patient too far. Your therapist will talk you through the process beforehand, ensuring that you are comfortable and prepared.
What Conditions Can a Neuropsych Diagnose?
Neuropsychs are not used just for diagnosis. They are also used to check in on the status of a disease or determine what stage of development a patient is in. It can assess patients who have experienced physical trauma, such as a TBI or stroke and can also diagnose mental health disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder or bipolar disorder.
Determining the Status of a Disorder
A neuropsych is often done to determine the status of a patient’s brain after a trauma, such as a traumatic brain injury.
Other physical traumas that might require a neuropsych include:
- Memory loss
Learning and Developmental Disorders
Neuropsychological testing is one of the most effective ways to assess and diagnose developmental disorders in the young. Developmental delays a neuropsych can test for include:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Language or speech disorders
- Seizure disorders
- Sensory Processing Disorder
Mood disorders can be difficult to diagnose. For this reason, many mental health professionals recommend a neuropsych when it comes to diagnosing these complex disorders. Disorders such as bipolar disorder, clinical depression, or psychosis are just some of the issues that may require a neuropsych exam.
Running a Differential Diagnosis
A neuropsych may include a differential diagnosis to rule out other disorders than the one that is suspected. Take an elderly patient who presents with symptoms that suggest Alzheimer’s. The doctor may wish to rule out a TBI before making a diagnosis. In this example, the neuropsych would include a physical examination.
Tests in a Neuropsych
In general, a neuropsych will test across seven categories:
- Executive Function
- Multiple Functions
When testing a patient’s memory, a doctor running a neuropsych looks at five areas of memory: episodic, semantic, procedural, short-term, and priming.
A neuropsych may also look at a patient’s intelligence. This can serve as a differential diagnosis, too, since doctors can look at areas typically less affected by traumatic injury, for example. Testing intelligence typically involves scales so that doctors can compare the patient to peers.
Speech-language is also assessed. Patients with brain trauma or developmental delays often present with speech-language difficulties.
In executive functioning testing, the doctor assesses the patient’s ability to organize, solve problems, and structure plans. The tests used will depend on a patient’s age and history.
Testing for visuospatial functioning looks at how a patient perceives and constructs visual space. This can be especially informative when assessing ASD.
When a patient is suspected to have dementia, the doctor may include dementia-specific testing in a neuropsych. The Clinical Dementia Rating and the Dementia Rating Scale are often used to compare a patient to peers and determine at what stage of development the patient may be.
Whatever the situation, a certified neuropsychologist can determine what testing is necessary. Running a neuropsych gives patients a clear understanding of their mental and neurological health and is key to developing a treatment plan for a healthier future.