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Cognitive Neuropsychology

Learn about the field of cognitive neuropsychology

cognitive neuropsychology

The 19th century French physician Pierre Paul Broca called Monsieur Leborgne – one of his patients - “Tan” because that was the only word the patient spoke, despite the fact that Tan could understand words and follow directions.

Based on studies of language impairment by researchers who came before him, Broca theorized that the left part of Tan’s cerebral cortex, known as the left frontal region, had incurred some form of damage or injury. After Tan died in 1861, Broca’s post-mortem showed exactly that, and Broca’s hypothesis and discovery began a series of studies that, more than 100 years later, led to the field today recognized as “cognitive neuropsychology.”

During the 1960s, growing interest in both cognitive psychology and the physiology of the brain formed the basis for a new field called neuropsychology, but it took until the 1980s for the first textbooks on “cognitive neuropsychology” to be published, making it a formally recognized field.

Neuropsychology Specialties

Jordan Grafman, a cognitive neuroscientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., calls cognitive neuropsychology one of two areas falling under the umbrella term “neuropsychology.” (For more information on neuropsychology, see What is neuropsychology?)

Grafman says that cognitive neuropsychologists research brain-behavior relationships by studying patients who have suffered some form of brain injury or trauma, such as those returning from war, or those who have had a stroke. They also study brain deficits caused by developmental disorders or disorders of impaired ability resulting from a disability. Cognitive neuropsychologists are research oriented and generally do not focus on diagnosing or treating patients.

Psychology

Treatment methods fall within the sphere of clinical neuropsychology, which is the second area of neuropsychological specialty.  (For more info, See Clinical Neuropsychology.)

Cognitive Cousins

In addition to falling under the umbrella term of neuropsychology, cognitive neuropsychology is closely linked to the related field of Cognitive Psychology. But cognitive psychology approaches the research and study of cognition from a different angle than cognitive neuropsychology.

Cognitive psychologists study how normal or “unimpaired” individuals acquire, process and store information, and how they use information to make decisions and solve problems. (See Cognitive Psychology)

More specifically, cognitive psychology focuses on the complexity and number of tasks that individuals normally use and complete on a daily basis: how individuals talk with others, learn different languages, understand and conceptualize topics- oftentimes simultaneously. They also attempt to unravel how people perform complex computational operations, write masterpieces, store, and recall memories, and form beliefs, social behaviors and perceptions.

The main areas of cognitive research include:

  • Language
  • Perception
  • Attention
  • Thinking
  • Memory
  • Action
  • Object recognition
  • Planning

Cognitive psychologists formulate empirical studies by hypothesizing or posing a question on how individuals learn or perform certain tasks, and by using data from their observations to either confirm or negate their hypotheses.

Putting the “neuro’ in cognitive studies

Cognitive neuropsychologists seek the same answers to questions about cognitive functioning as cognitive psychologists, but formulate their studies differently. They focus on individuals with “deficits” in brain functioning, deficits caused by either brain injuries or developmental disabilities.

In other words, cognitive neuropsychologists extrapolate knowledge from observed cases of psychological dysfunction into theories and hypotheses about the information processing systems that explain these dysfunctions. They then try to “map” the genesis and execution of specific information processing tasks to regions of the brain.

By discovering how neurological damage affects psychological and neural functioning, they are able to uncover the mechanisms involved with normal brain function, complementing research from the field of Cognitive Psychology.

Together, the two cognitive psychological fields add to the body of knowledge of normal and abnormal brain functioning – in addition to many other areas of neuroscientific research and study.

Neuroimaging

Nearly all researchers in the cognitive sciences today utilize neuroimaging, a technology that revolutionized the brain sciences. During the 1980s, one of the first types of neuroimaging methods called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) became available to both clinicians and research scientists.

This technology permits the display of detailed images of the brain in a safe, non-invasive manner. This was soon followed by another type of MRI called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a radiation-free form of imaging that permits patients to complete tasks while researchers observe images of their brains. As the patient completes the task, the fMRI lights up the area or areas of the brain activated by the task performed.

Cognitive researchers are now able to simulate emotions in the laboratory, measuring such abstract processes as fear, sadness, and happiness. This has wide implications for the study of a number of disorders, such as depression and panic disorders.

Many other types of neuroimaging tools and techniques are now available, however fMRI remains the primary tool used today by cognitive scientists. (For more information, see neuroimaging.)

Careers in Cognitive Neuropsychology

Cognitive neuropsychologists are more ‘scientific’ compared to many other areas of psychology. They spend most of their time researching and conducting empirical studies on human subjects as opposed to treating and planning interventions for patients.

Grafman of NIH, who has worked in the field of Neuropsychology since 1981 and is now chief of the cognitive neuroscience division, advises those interested in a career in cognitive neuropsychology to visit the websites of cognitive neuropsychology and neuroscience societies and organizations. (Read the published abstracts found on those websites to get a better understanding of the breadth of this field.)

He said the abstracts will contain jargon and technical language that isn’t easily understood, but readers will get an idea of what’s being studied in the field today.

He also recommends talking with people in the field, perhaps the authors of abstracts you find intriguing, and also volunteering for an organization that conducts cognitive neuropsychology research.

But more importantly, Grafman said, is to choose an area of study or specialty that you love. “You’ll have good days and bad days at work, but if you love the mysteries of how the brain works, that will keep you going – even during the difficult days.”

If you have a passion for understanding how the brain’s physiology influences thinking and behavior, you should consider a career in cognitive neuropsychology. Most jobs in this field require at least a Ph.D.

Find out more about this field by requesting information from schools offering degrees in psychology.

Careers Titles in Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuropsychology

  • Cognitive Neuropsychologist
  • Developmental Cognitive Neuropsychologist
  • University teaching and research
  • School Neuropsychology Consultation
  • Neuropsychology researcher for public and private organizations
  • Neurogenetics Psychologist
  • Neuropathology Specialist
  • Behavioral Neuropsychologist
  • Forensic Neuropsychologist
  • Rehabilitation Neuropsychologist
  • Dementia Neuropsychologist
  • Clinical Neuropsychologist

Studying Aphasia - The inspiration for the cognitive neuropsychology field

In 1861 physician Paul Pierre Broca performed a brain autopsy on a former patient who couldn’t talk. He found damage in the left frontal cortex, demonstrating that damage in this area affected language functioning. And in 1874, Carl Wernicke also performed an autopsy on a patient with a different type of language deficit showing damage in the left posterior region of the temporal lobe, speculating that damage had actually occurred in the “pathway” between this area and the area of Broca’s discovery.

Both Broca and Wernicke described different forms of aphasia, or the inability to articulate ideas or understand spoken or written language. Aphasia is common following stroke, and in Alzheimer’s and Pick’s diseases – two types of dementia.

Language research over the years expanded on Broca’s and Wernicke’s important discoveries, as in 1885 when Ludwig Lichtheim proposed his “connectionist” model to explain various forms of aphasia. This model posits that different centers or areas of the brain are interconnected, and that language deficits can occur from damage to the centers or to the pathways between centers.

Lichtheim’s model proposed that Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas formed a triangle with a third area, which he called the “concept center.” This area of the brain, he hypothesized, stored word meanings and facilitated auditory comprehension.

The connectionist model remained the primary framework for understanding aphasia until the early 20th century when other theories took precedence.

However, in the 1960s, American neurologist Norman Geschwind revisited the connectionist model. In a number of aphasic patients, Geschwind found damage to the pathway area first described by Wernicke, the pathway between Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area now called the arcuate fasciculus.

Even though these patients didn’t have any damage to the areas themselves, Geschwind found that they did have damage to the arcuate fasciculus. This damage resulted in patients being unable to repeat certain words – even though they could still understand speech and generally produce it. This disorder became known as conduction aphasia.

Geschwind continued to study many different forms of aphasia, and worked to advance Lichtheim’s connectionist model also believing in a third “concept area,” mapping it to the brain’s left inferior parietal lobe. Geschwind proposed that damage to the concept area produced two other forms of “rare” aphasic conditions.

Geschwinds’ model and research, as well as Broca’s, Wernicke’s, and Lichtheim’s, continue to influence the study of aphasia today. However, with the advent of neuroimaging techniques and recent neuroanatomical knowledge advanced by today’s brain scientists, researchers now recognize that language ability and dysfunction are much more complex.

Scientists now adhere to a belief that many brain “centers” are involved with language in addition to connecting pathways, that a distributed control network of neural processes and connections in the brain all play a part in language processes. In addition, it is now believed that language production involves both hemispheres of the brain, not only the left region.

Yet these pioneering researchers laid critical groundwork for the research taking place in aphasia today, just as today’s researchers are laying important groundwork for tomorrow’s advances in the study of aphasia and other language disorders.

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