Differences between Neuropsychology and Neurology
Two similar disciplines but with important differences.
Neuropsychology and neurology are scientific disciplines that share the study of the knowledge of the brain and the relationships between the diseases that affect it and human behavior.
In spite of being two disciplines with many aspects in common, there are also clear differences between one and the other.. In this article we will focus on what differentiates neuropsychology from neurology, as well as the different functions that both neuropsychologists and neurologists must fulfill in their respective professions.
What is neuropsychology and what does it study?
Neuropsychology is a branch of scientific knowledge that studies the relationships between brain activity, higher cognitive functions (attention, memory, gnosias, praxias, etc.) and human behavior in all its spheres: family, interpersonal, social, etc.
One of the main sources of knowledge of neuropsychology comes from the study of brain functions and structures, both preserved and altered; the latter, as a result of organic lesions (such as cranioencephalic trauma, stroke, epilepsy, etc.) affect the brain and, therefore, the individual's behavior.
Functions of the neuropsychologist
The neuropsychologist is, in general, a professional psychologist who has specialized in the study of the brain and its relationship with behavior.. The main functions of a neuropsychology professional are the following:
Conducting neuropsychological evaluations
The aim is to evaluate if there is brain damage and to see which structures have been damaged.. For this purpose, general neuropsychological batteries and specific tests for each cognitive area or function are used.
It is a process aimed at rehabilitation, that is, at slowing down or improving the cognitive deterioration caused by a brain injury.. To this end, individual aspects such as age, personality type, background, etc., must be taken into account.
A neuropsychologist can also dedicate himself partially or totally to the field of research, carrying out experiments with healthy subjects and groups, comparing them with others affected by brain damage or lesions. The most studied aspects in the field of neuropsychology are usually memory, attention, processing speed or executive functions, mainly in patients with acquired brain damage, stroke, neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive impairment.
What is neurology?
Neurology is a medical specialty that deals with the study of the functions and development of the nervous system (central, peripheral and autonomic). (central, peripheral and autonomic) and muscular systems, both in healthy subjects and in people with some type of brain pathology.
This scientific discipline is nourished by the set of diseases affecting the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (muscles and nerves). The most common are usually dementia, epilepsy, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis or traumatic brain injury.
Duties of a neurologist
A neurologist is a physician who has specialized in the study and treatment of diseases affecting the nervous system.. His main function is to diagnose and treat people suffering from disorders of the brain and spinal cord, although it is true that a neurologist can also deal with many other common diseases, such as high Blood Pressure or diabetes.
Differences between neuropsychology and neurology
Neuropsychology and neurology are disciplines that belong to the same scientific field: the neurosciences.
Both share similarities in that they they are in charge of studying the brain, its diseases or lesions and people's behavior in order to try to cure or rehabilitate them; however, as we will see below, neuropsychology and neurology are not the same.However, as we will see below, they also differ in several aspects.
Differences in origin: which discipline came first?
Neuropsychology is a relatively recent discipline, as it has its origins in the work of physicians, neurologists and psychiatrists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with references such as Paul Broca or Carl Wernicke and his studies on aphasia. However, it was not until the 1940s, with the publications of Luria and his theories on the brain organization of language and its pathologies, that this discipline became popular.
Neurology, on the other hand, is a much older discipline whose modern origins can be traced back to the beginning of the 17th century and the work of Thomas Willis, an English physician and pioneer in neuroanatomical research. Purkinje first, with his studies on the description of neurons, and Ramón y Cajal later, with his findings on neuronal connections, also shaped what centuries later would form today's neurology.
It could be said, therefore, that neuropsychology comes from and has been nourished from its beginnings by a discipline such as neurology, broadening over the years its field of action and making use of other fields such as psychology or cognitive neuroscience.Over the years, it has broadened its field of action and made use of other fields such as psychology or cognitive neuroscience.
Differences in the study perspective: molar vs. molecular analysis
Neuropsychology, like neurology, deals with the study of diseases affecting the brain and their relationship with behavior. However, there is something that differentiates them: in the case of neuropsychology, its level of analysis is less molecular and less molecular, its level of analysis is less molecular and more molar than that of neurology.What does this mean? Let's see it with an example.
When a patient comes for consultation because he/she sees that he/she is forgetting more and more things and believes that he/she could be suffering from some type of dementia or cognitive impairment, the neurologist's function will be to carry out an exhaustive neurological evaluation (using brain imaging techniques, magnetic resonance imaging, etc.) to identify the groups of neurons affected, their location, affected structure and so on. In short, the neurologist's task is to carry out a molecular analysis (exclusively at the biological and neurological level of detail) of what is happening in the patient's brain.
In contrast, the work of a neuropsychology professional in a case of suspected cognitive impairment will vary substantially: after a thorough neuropsychological evaluation (with specific tests to detect altered cognitive functions), the damaged functions and structures will be investigated in order to relate these alterations to the patient's general behavior, understood as part of a biopsychosocial organism. This is a molar analysis.
It is not, therefore, a question of identifying whether a part of the brain tissue has been more or less damaged, information that a neurologist can already provide; the task of neuropsychology is to assess what this cognitive deficit consists of (and its relationship with the rest of the cognitive processes) and how the person can be helped to recover his or her autonomy and functional performance, by compensating or restoring the preserved and altered functions.
Differences in treatment: cognitive vs. pharmacological rehabilitation
One of the aspects that differentiate neurology from neuropsychology is their methodology in approaching treatment.. A discipline such as neurology, which is nothing more than a medical specialty, will address a brain disease as a matter of priority through the use of psychotropic drugs, since a medical professional is qualified and trained to do so.
The prescription of psychopharmaceuticals, in this case aimed at alleviating or treating diseases of the brain, is a power enjoyed only by physicians. A neuropsychologist, who is generally only trained in psychology, is not empowered to prescribe medication, so his or her tools for treating brain disorders are not available to physicians.Therefore, his or her tools to try to help and rehabilitate the person with brain damage will be different.
The neuropsychologist will apply cognitive rehabilitation techniques and tools, a therapeutic procedure used to compensate or improve cognitive deficits associated with brain damage. Normally, generic rehabilitation programs of higher cognitive functions (attentional system, memory, executive functions, etc.) will be used, as well as techniques to improve the patient's basic activities of daily living.
It should not be forgotten that the objective of any therapeutic program should be to improve the autonomy and quality of life of the affected person. Both the neurologist, through the prescription of drugs, and the neuropsychologist, through cognitive rehabilitation methods, will be two key figures in the overall process of improving the biopsychosocial well-being of the individual.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)