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What is Experimental Neuropsychology?

Learn about the field of experimental neuropsychology

If asked what they do for a living, many experimental neuropsychologists answer by explaining that they research human cognition and behavior. These are more descriptive terms than the broad categories of “neuropsychology” and “experimental.”

And most people, once they are told about the pioneering research taking place in this field today, find the profession fascinating – and especially relevant. Today’s experimental neuropsychologists investigate health issues that will affect each individual at some point in his or her life, either directly or through relationships with family members or friends.

The field of Experimental Psychology investigates the cognitive and behavioral ramifications of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders, and brain dysfunctions and deficits caused by accidental head injuries.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3.17 million Americans currently have a long-term or lifelong need for aid in performing their normal daily activities and functions, resulting from a traumatic brain injury.

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And the numbers of children diagnosed each year with certain neurodevelopmental disorders continues to increase. The CDC reports that 13% of U.S. children have a developmental disability, ranging from speech and mild language impairments to serious intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism. Between the years 2002 to 2006, the number of children with an autism spectrum disorder increased 57%, the CDC reports.

In addition, the Pittsburgh Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases estimates that one in four Americans will suffer from a neurodegenerative disease. And, according to the Institute, virtually all Americans will have at least one family member with one of these conditions.

How does experimental neuropsychology help?

Experimental neuropsychology involves the qualitative analyses of the behavioral and cognitive consequences of brain damage, dysfunction, and deficits. Through carefully controlled experiments based on the scientific method, experimental neuropsychologists test existing theories or new hypotheses concerning the perceptual, cognitive, linguistic, and behavioral changes as a result of brain or nervous system impairment.
In the course of testing theories and new hypothesis within highly controlled environments, experimental neuropsychologists must have an in-depth knowledge of normal brain function. In fact, understanding how pathology has altered behaviors and cognition has lead to numerous discoveries and insights about normal cognition and behavior. For that reason, some experimental neuropsychologists also conduct experiments that test normal cognitive processes and behavioral responses.

How does the field differ from other areas of psychological research?

One distinguishing characteristic of neuropsychological research and practice centers on the use of neuropsychological assessments. Both clinical and experimental neuropsychologists have the expertise to administer and interpret the results from these tests, which are used to assess levels of cognitive impairment, and to predict an individual’s chances for improvements in brain function after suffering a head injury, or a condition such as a stroke. (for more info, see neuropsychological assessments).

Increasingly, those in the field of experimental neuropsychology use assessments to determine areas of cognitive impairment in certain developmental disorders, and to test participants involved with head injuries, tracking improvements or worsening outcomes. (For more information on how researchers use neuropsychological assessments, see neuropsychological tests)

Neuropsychological areas of research

The cognitive and behavioral systems that experimental neuropsychologists research in relation to developmental neurological disorders, brain injury, and neurodegenerative disorders are the following:

  • Perception
  • Attention
  • Motor control
  • Cognition
  • Emotions
  • Language
  • Memory
  • Experiences affecting changes in cortical structure
  • Planning and problem solving
  • Aging

Neurological developmental disorders

Experimental neuropsychologists study impaired brain development resulting from genetic and metabolic diseases, immune diseases, infections, physical trauma, poor nutrition, and environmental factors.

In degrees, developmental disorders affect nearly all major cognitive and behavioral processes, but can be especially detrimental to a child’s – and future adult’s - emotional stability, learning abilities, and memory.

The following lists some of the neurodevelopmental disorders studied by experimental neuropsychologists:

  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Autism
  • Dyslexia
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Congenital injuries such as cerebral palsy
  • Speech and language disorders
  • Fragile-X syndrome
  • Down syndrome

Researching developmental disorders from a neuropsychological perspective offers many scientifically unique opportunities. For instance, understanding the neurogenetics of diseases such as Fragile-X syndrome and Down syndrome contributes to the research taking place in the neurosciences on the role of genes in determining brain deficits and cognitive disabilities.

And by studying attention disabilities in ADHD but also across the other neurodevelopmental disorders where attention defects coincide (are comorbid) with the condition provides researchers with a valuable perspective. Researchers have now shown, for example, that in some neurodevelomental conditions and among some patients, attention improves with development, but in others, it worsens.

Not only is having the knowledge of attention defects helpful in understanding the specifics of each condition, but it also helps in developing applicable educational interventions .

Neurodegenerative disorders

Another main area of concentration for experimental neuropsychologists - neurodegenerative disorders - reaches most deeply into all Americas lives.

These diseases include the following:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Stroke
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral schlerosis)

The Institute for Neurological Disorders (IND) states that the term “neurodegenerative” signifies a loss of neurons causing disease. This can include the death of neurons, or loss of neuronal structure and function.

The IND states that each neurodegenerative disease typically affects cognition, movement, strength, coordination, sensation, or autonomic control. However, for some patients, a considerable amount of overlap exists, meaning that patients often exhibit symptoms and signs referable to more than one psychological system. In addition, a single test doesn’t exist for most degenerative diseases making diagnosis a complex process.

Experimental neuropsychologists research all areas of these diseases, from genetic implications, to developing better diagnostic tools, to understanding how the diseases affect cognition and behavior. In addition, these scientists further specialize their focus, investigating the diseases for individuals in each developmental stage, from childhood to old age.

Studying Cognition in Parkinson’s disease

The actor Michael J. Fox is the most public face today regarding Parkinson’s disease. Diagnosed in 1991, Fox went public with his condition in 1998. His slow movements and tremors are typical for all sufferers of the disease, and much research has taken place to understand the brain’s neuronal and functional pathologies linked to the tremors.

But now scientists are investigating a somewhat neglected topic regarding the disease: cognitive impairment.

Unlike those with other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or other dementias, Parkinson’s patients don’t experience memory loss. Instead, the high-level cognitive functions called “executive functions” are often impacted.

Executive functions control and enable behaviors such as initiating and stopping actions, gauging and monitoring behaviors, planning behaviors, setting goals, and controlling emotions.

Yet scientists have long questioned whether Parkinson’s patients with cognitive deficits also have Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer patients have deposits on the brain called amyloid deposits, and their neurons degenerate into tangled masses containing the protein tau. Parkinson’s patients, on the other hand, have deposits called Lewy bodies - composed of a different substance than amyloid deposits.

Deposits in both conditions are only found post-mortem during autopsy, but doctors can now track the substances in the spinal fluid.

In Seattle, scientists at the University of Washington studied 345 patients who broke down into the following groups: Parkinson’s patients with cognitive symptoms and deficits, Parkinson’s patients without cognitive symptoms, Alzheimer’s patients, and healthy participants. They looked at the spinal fluid from each of these groups.

One-half of the Parkinson’s patients with dementia and one-third with cognitive impairment showed low levels of amyloid, indicating that they had increased amyloid deposits on their brains. The amounts were similar to those of the Alzheimer’s patients. But just a few of the Parkinson’s patients had increased amounts of tau.

These findings point to the fact that Alzheimer’s disease probably isn’t the cause of the cognitive deficits in the Parkinson’s patients, but the overlap between the two diseases suggest that current drug treatments for Alzheimer’s could also possibly benefit those with Parkinson’s.

Employment in the experimental neuropsychology field

Those with degrees in experimental neuropsychology find employment in both the private and public sectors. They work for institutions that support ongoing research in neuropsychology. Those who work at universities also teach classes while conducting research and publishing papers in peer reviewed scientific journals.

For those with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in experimental neuropsychology, laboratory assistant or laboratory management positions are a possibility. To design and implement empirical research studies, most institutions require a Ph.D.

If you are interested in the field of Experimental Neuropsychology, in a job that affects the well being and lives of millions of people, consider a psychology degree with an emphasis in neuropsychology. Contact schools offering degrees in psychology. Also, learn more about the licensing requirements for a psychology career at Psychology Career Licensure.

Using CANTAB® for Understanding Tourette Syndrome

Using a neuropsychological assessment for children with Tourette Syndrome (TS) might turn out to be an effective way to address alternative learning strategies for this condition.

A study published in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in November 2009, “Neuropsychological Functioning in Children with Tourette Syndrome (TS),” discussed the pioneering research by Canadian researchers Carmen Rasmussen, PH.D., Maryam Soleimani, Alan Carroll, MB, BCh, MRC Psych, FRCP(C) and Oleksander Hodlevskyy, MD, PH.D.

Never before had the neuropsychological battery CANTAB® been employed to examine neuropsychological deficits for children with TS. CANTAB® (Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery) uses the computer’s touch screen and visual cues to test a number of neuropsychological functions.

A neurodevelopmental disorder that begins in childhood, TS causes involuntary motor movements and vocalizations called tics. Learning and school performance, self-esteem, social skills and family life are affected by the disorder, which affects mainly boys by the age of 7.

Research in only the last few years has hypothesized that a significant area of dysfunction among both children and adults with TS occurs in the area of “executive functioning,” an integral area for cognitive functioning localized to the brain’s frontal lobes. Executive functions encompass a set of higher-order cognitive processes that mediate goal-setting behaviors, such as planning, inhibition, flexible thinking, working memory, and abstract thinking.

CANTAB® measures most if not all of these higher-order cognitive processes, including executive function, working memory, and planning functions. Therefore, the researchers stated goal of the study was to “examine whether children with TS display a unique profile or neuropsychological and executive functioning deficits on a variety of CANTAB® subtests relative to control children.”

Thirty-eight children aged 7 to 13 with TS were tested as well as a control group of 38 control participants aged 6 to 12 without TS or any other neurodevelopmental disorder. Both the TS group and the control group of children were administered the same eight subtests.

The CANTAB® subtests measured the following:

  • Visual memory through pattern recognition memory
  • Spatial recognition memory
  • Executive function through spatial span*
  • Executive function through the “Stockings of Cambridge” test*
  • Executive function through the intra-extra dimensional set shift*
  • Executive function through spatial working memory*
  • Attention through reaction time
  • Rapid visual information processing

The children with TS scored significantly lower than the control children on spatial recognition memory, all executive function tests, and on the ability to sustain attention long-term.

The researchers reported significant implications concerning the tailoring of educational interventions. For example, their difficulty with spatial memory tests suggest that children with TS in the classroom may have difficulty copying information from a board onto a paper.

Also the children with TS scored lower on tests where sustained attention and inhibition were required, requiring classroom adjustments when long-term attention is required to complete tasks or to sit quietly and listen for extended periods of time.

*Executive Function tests from CANTAB®

  • Spatial Span (SSP). Testing working memory, this test shows a series of squares in random places on the screen. The squares light up in a path, and the test participant must replicate the path by touching the squares in the correct order. The path increases from two to nine squares, measuring the span length, or the length of pattern that the participant is able to follow and replicate.
  • Stockings of Cambridge (SOC). Testing motor skills and the ability to plan, this test uses images of hanging stockings on a computer screen, each filled with colored balls. The screen is divided in half, each section containing three stockings but having three different colored balls in each stocking. The test participant must re-arrange the balls in the bottom half of the screen to match those in the top half of the screen. The screen’s right-hand side shows the participants the allowed number of moves to replicate the pattern. If the participant exceeds the allowed number of moves, the test stops and moves on to the next pattern. The test measures the length of time to make the first move, and then the length of time taken for each subsequent move. It also measures the number of problems correctly solved in the minimum number of moves.
  • Intra-Extra Dimensional Set Shift (IED). Testing frontal-lobe functioning, this test shows four large rectangles on a screen, in which a large set of images appear within two of the rectangles. The test participant is given instructions on a particular image to select, and then more instructions on what to do with the image. If the participant chooses correctly, the screen lights up green, and another set of images is shown. There are several stages of tasks involved with the test, and scores are based on the number of completed tasks, and the number of errors made in completing the tasks.
  • Spatial Working Memory (SWM). Testing spatial working memory and strategy skills, this test shows random colored boxes on a screen, which the test participant touches. When a blue chip appears under a box, the participant is instructed to drag it to a meter on the screen’s right-hand side until the meter is full. Once a blue chip is found, the participant is told that the particular color of the box that contained a chip will never again have a blue chip. Difficulty levels increase as the number of boxes increase.
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