Some people searching around for mental health practitioners may have come across the term “clinical neuropsychologists”. These same people may wonder: what is neuropsychology? And what makes this specialty field different than traditional psychology? The field of Neuropsychology is an intersection between neurology and psychology that may seek to understand the structure and function of the brain and its relationship to thoughts and behaviors. Many brain disorders as well as traumatic brain injury can produce mental health symptoms, and neuropsychology focuses on how, why, and in what capacity this occurs.
What do neuropsychologists do?
Understanding the relationship between brain disorders and mental health conditions may lead to more accurate diagnoses and treatment options for patients, which is one of the goals of neuropsychology. This specialty aims to understand how the brain and behavior are connected.
By gaining insight into this connection, neuropsychologists may be able to rule out physical/structural brain disorders and other neurological disorders when developing a treatment plan for individuals with cognitive or behavioral problems.
Some behavioral and cognitive conditions may result from a treatable neurological problem. If a primary care practitioner suspects this, the referring doctor may send the patient to a neuropsychologist to administer tests. Based on the neuropsychological exam and standardized tests’ results, they can then determine what the problem may be. Neuropsychologists will also often be consulted after brain injury or brain surgery to look for any behavioral or mood changes.
Neuropsychologists are medical doctors, unlike psychologists. For this reason, they have the ability to diagnose and treat mental health conditions with clinical tests and medications. For example, neuropsychologists often perform diagnostic testing for those experiencing symptoms of autism or ADHD.
What mental health conditions does a neuropsychologist treat?
Neuropsychologists treat several neurological problems and the mental/psychological problems that may go along with medical conditions like brain disease or brain trauma, including the following:
- Learning disorders
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Endocrine disorders
- Brain tumors
- Brain cancer
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Seizure disorders
- Sex chromosome abnormalities
- Klinefelter syndrome
- Motor neuron diseases
- Sports concussions
- Traumatic brain injuries
Neuropsychologists have different training than psychologists, and this training may help them assess neurological and psychological disorders.
When neurological problems are suspected, a neurological assessment may help a neurologist understand the problem and begin treatment. Additionally, a neuropsychologist may do a psychological exam to find common mental health diagnoses.
There are several areas of focus in neuropsychology, and neuropsychological testing may include the following.
Executive functioning skills are the cognitive functions necessary for planning, focusing attention, remembering, executing instructions, and multitasking. Executive functioning manages the ability to filter distractions and may allow us to organize and prioritize. These skills can be necessary for setting and achieving goals.
Focus and attention
The ability to focus and pay attention can be valuable when setting and achieving goals and navigating and maintaining social relationships. Problems with focus and attention may be symptoms of ADHD or another mental health condition.
Intellectual functioning is the ability to think, plan, reason, and communicate effectively. These skills are often essential for learning, solving problems, and practicing good judgment.
Academic functioning correlates with academic achievement, lack of achievement, and psychological distress/disorders.
Adaptive functioning involves interacting with others socially in different environments and situations. Difficulty in this area may indicate that an individual is autistic.
A personality assessment is a test that is scored according to scientific/empirical standards to predict behaviors in various settings, such as school, home life, work, interpersonal situations, and other areas.
Motor speed/skills and coordination
Neuropsychologists can use tests designed to assess motor speed/reaction time and coordination skills.
Speech and language
These neuropsychological tests assess an individual’s ability to organize and plan visually and use fine motor skills effectively.
Note: For any of these neurological tests, your neuropsychologist will recommend the patient get a good night’s sleep, eating regular meals, and taking medicine as usual unless specified otherwise. A good night’s sleep and these other behaviors will help keep the results as accurate as possible.
Importance of neuropsychological tests
The assessments used in neuropsychology can be valuable for distinguishing and diagnosing neurological and psychological disorders. For example, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a condition that attacks nerve cells in the brain, tends to cause problems that can be found during a neuropsychological assessment.
A neuropsychologist gathers information from the assessments, evaluates them, and includes tests, assessments, and diagnoses from other healthcare professionals involved in an individual’s care. This information is then used to provide a rehabilitation and treatment plan.
Neuropsychologists often aim to determine if a neurological disorder is related to cognitive and behavioral concerns. At times, it is a psychologist or psychiatrist who refers a patient to a neuropsychologist, but medical doctors may also rely on neuropsychologists for diagnosing and treating neurological disorders. Neuropsychologists, medical doctors, and other health professionals often work together with family members as a team when providing care.
Children and psychology
Neuropsychologists are frequently sought for diagnosing and treating children with learning disabilities. Although there are psychology resources available in most schools, sometimes the best evaluation and treatment plans are provided by neuropsychologists.
There are many reasons a child may fall behind academically, and finding a specific reason sometimes requires a professional with years of training. Usually, the first individual to notice a learning disability in a child is the teacher or a family member. The next step is usually an evaluation by the school psychologist or a child study team.
While these individuals are specifically trained to identify and treat learning disabilities, they may not be able to diagnose a condition. A neuropsychologist often works with the school psychologist or child study team to provide a learning plan tailored to the child’s needs.
Additionally, adults can also experience learning disabilities and related conditions. If you are an adult and were not evaluated as a child, a neuropsychologist specializing in adult care may benefit you.
What do neuropsychologists study?
Neuropsychology requires more years of training than a psychology degree requires. The exact coursework required as a prerequisite for a neuropsychology degree can vary depending on the university, but all neuropsychologists must earn a doctorate.
Neuroscience, biology, and psychology are possible areas of study for someone interested in neuropsychology. Studying the brain and nervous system along with psychology is often part of the training for neuropsychologists. Below is a sample of the coursework that may be required for neuropsychologists:
- Clinical psychology
- Cognitive psychology
- Research methods in stress and health
Becoming a neuropsychologist usually requires all the core courses in applied psychology and neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, and neurology.
You may be considering seeing a neuropsychologist but wondering what their training involves. The exact licensing requirements may vary but usually include the following steps:
- Complete two years of supervised training in neuropsychology
- Obtain at least two years of experience in the field
- Complete one year of a psychology residency
- Pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology
- Pass any state exams
- Apply for a neuropsychology license
- Obtain additional certification from the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology or the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology
If you search for a neuropsychologist, the person you see will likely have one of two terminal degrees: A doctor of philosophy (PhD) or a doctor of psychology (PsyD). The main differences between the two include the following.
- More emphasis on psychological testing and neuropsychological evaluation
- More emphasis on science (many clinical neuropsychologists work in lab settings)
- Skills necessary for teaching, practicing, and researching
- More emphasis on practical clinical training and problem-solving
- More emphasis on a scholarly model (better for those interested in practice)
- More focus on skills necessary for clinical settings, such as psychotherapy, counseling of all types, and work in institutional settings
Where do neuropsychologists work?
Neuropsychologists may work closely as part of a group practice or a team of individuals providing expertise and developing rehabilitation and treatment plans in a hospital setting, along with physical therapists, speech therapists, and occupational therapists. Some neuropsychology practitioners have a practice where they provide clients with diagnosis and treatment, while others work in a laboratory setting conducting research. The following is a list of areas a neuropsychologist may choose to work in:
- Clinical setting: Providing rehabilitation and treatment for those with neurological disorders
- Academic setting: Conducting research at a university
- School setting: Providing education plans and academic psychological support plans for students
- Hospital setting: Treating and rehabilitating patients in a hospital or rehabilitation center
- Laboratory: Researching neurological functions in a pharmaceutical capacity
Many neuropsychologists are also part of professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association (APA), and can be located that way.
Counseling for mental health conditions
If you’re unsure whether you need a neuropsychological examination, you might begin by talking to a therapist. Many individuals appreciate the ease and availability of online counseling as an option. If you find yourself busy or working during regular business hours, online counseling allows you to select an appointment time that works best for you.
Research shows that online therapy is an effective mode of treating a broad array of mental health concerns. In a wide-ranging report on the efficacy of internet-based treatment methods, researchers compiled the results of 92 studies examining different forms of online therapy. The report concluded that online therapy is a helpful alternative to face-to-face therapy, successfully treating symptoms related to various mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. The report notes that the most valuable type of treatment was online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims to help patients target and replace intrusive, unhelpful thoughts and better manage potentially triggering situations.
If you’re ready to try online counseling, consider a platform such as BetterHelp. The platform offers a growing database of counselors with expertise in various areas, including learning disabilities, mental health conditions, or life stressors. Further, online therapy can also help persons with different types of intellectual disabilities acquire new life skills and provide a better understanding for the caregivers on how to best take care of them.
Frequently Asked Questions
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