What is the difference between a neurologist and a neuropsychologist?
Your mother is forgetful lately, missing appointments and feeling frustrated with herself in the process.
You are noticing she is often confused or disoriented by tasks that once seemed simple and routine.
You feel worried but aren’t sure what to do or who to speak with to find help, if you need help at all.
What do you do when a loved one is showing signs of cognitive disfunction? When you need help with brain health, where do you turn?
One of the most common questions we receive regards the difference between a neurologist and a neuropsychologist. Clients are often referred to one or the other, and it’s difficult to know which one does what, who a loved one needs to see and what the outcome of a visit is likely to be.
The terms can be confusing. Both a neurologist and a neuropsychologist plays an important roles in the brain health of all adults. Older adults will often see a neurologist or neuropsychologist for a number of brain-related and other medical issues, so understanding the difference between the two is key to receiving the best treatment and care possible.
The first step in addressing cognitive issues is, of course, speaking with a primary care physician who can provide a referral to a neurologist or neuropsychologist if needed. If a referral is made, understandng the differences between the two and how both a neurologist and neuropsychologist can help treat and manage the symptoms of neurological disfunction.
Let’s explore what exactly a neurologist and neuropsychologist is, what they do, what they don’t do and how they help patients with cognitive and neurological problems.
Definitions of Neurologist & Neuropsychologist
Let’s first begin by defining each professional term.
According to WebMD, a neurologist is a “medical specialist with advanced training in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the brain, spinal cord, nerves and muscles.
According to the National Association of Neuropsychology, a neuropsychologist “is a professional within the field of psychology with special expertise in the applied science of brain-behavior relationships.”
Education for Neurologist vs. Neuropsychologist
What types of education do a neurologist and neuropsychologist have?
A neurologist is a medical doctor with an MD (Doctor of Medicine) or a DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). Neurologists attend medical school followed by a residency and, many times, a fellowship. Examples of subspecialties of neurology include but are not limited to:
- Brain Injury Medicine
- Headache Medicine
- Autonomic Disorders
- Geriatric Neurology
- Sleep Medicine
A neuropsychologist/neuropsychiatrist has a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) in psychology and completes an internship and two years of specialized training in clinical neuropsychology before becoming a board-certified neuropsychologist. Clinical neuropsychology is a recognized specialty of clinical psychology.
Treatments Provided by Neurologist vs. Neuropsychologist
What does a neurologist do?
Neurologists treat disorders that affect the brain, spinal cord and nerves. These disorders might include Parkinson’s Disease, epilepsy, migraine headaches, strokes, ALS and multiple sclerosis. As many of these diagnoses are complicated, many neurologists will choose to focus on one diagnosis or disorder.
Neurologists diagnosis, perform tests (CT scans, MRI, EEG), and perform procedures (lumbar puncture for cerebral spinal fluid analysis, nerve conduction studies and electromyography). Neurologists focus primarily on the physical effects of neurological disorders.
What does a neuropsychologist do?
Neuropsychologists focus on the brain’s cognitive functions including attention, memory and executive function. Neuropsychologists are trained to utilize task-based metrics to evaluate the functionality of a person’s brain. This is a unique skill to the field of neuropsychology.
A neuropsychologist can help develop a treatment plan based on a diagnosis to help address cognitive function related to certain disorders including many disorders or health concerns a neurologist may also diagnosis and address (Parkinson’s Disease, for example).
What They Don’t Do
Neurologists are medical doctors, but they are not surgeons. If a patient requires surgery, a neurologist will refer the patient to a neurosurgeon.
Unless a neuropsychologist has been trained in neuroscience, he or she will not conduct imaging or brain scans. Also, neuropsychologists do not prescribe medication; neurologists prescribe medication.
How Neurologists and Neuropsychologists Work Together
Neurologists and neuropsychologists often work together to provide the best diagnosis and treatment options.
For example, a neurologist might diagnosis a patient with Parkinson’s disease. A neuropsychologist might then test the patient to evaluate functioning in a number of areas including memory, attention, and executive function.
Neurologists may seek the advice or perspective of a neuropsychologist if a diagnosis is unclear or difficult to achieve. Neuropsychological testing may shed more light on the issue, and vice versa. Neuropsychologists may work closely with neurologists when patients present for diagnosis and require imaging/testing a neurologist must perform.
A neurologist is a medical doctor who diagnoses and treats the physical symptoms of brain, spine and nerve-related disorders like dementia, Parkinson’s disease, concussions, sleep disorders and more.
Neuropsychologists are psychologists who test and determine brain function related to brain disorders and how brain function and behavior are connected. Neuropsychologists test and assess the psychological issuesfaced by patients with neurological conditions and provide treatment plans to help in their rehabilitation.
Finally, it is wise to remember that there is overlap between the two professions. Neurologists and neuropsychologists often work closely together, share information and help each other make the best possible diagnoses and treatment plans for patients.
If you or a loved one is concerned about cognitive function and brain health, speak with your primary care doctor about your concerns and set up an appointment for an evaluation.
If you do find yourself working with a neurologist or neuropsychologist, an Aging Life Care™ Professional can help explain options and provide a personalized plan for managing treatment and finding personal care.
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Life over 50 is complicated. From illnesses to general aging-related difficulties, there's a lot to learn and a lot to cope with. We understand and we're here to help answer questions and provide guidance on your options.