Neuropsychology is a specialized field in neuroscience that looks at diagnosing changes in human behavior and cognitive functioning, often after some sort of physical damage to the brain. It is therefore an intersection between psychology and clinical neurology. For the most part, neuropsychology is an applied science, and most neuropsychologists are actively trying to help patients in a clinical setting. Outside of clinical treatment, neuropsychologists may also be active in diagnosing behavioral changes in people for court cases, giving insight into hard-wired psychological responses for product design, studying healthy patients’ responses to stimuli, or working on new clinical treatments for disorders.
In clinical studies, neuropsychology often examines people who have suffered from some sort of lesion to the brain. By looking at the type of lesion, the area affected, and the symptoms, they help further the understanding of how different areas of the brain impact behavior and cognition. This work has helped create a better map to the brain over the past two decades, and has given neuropsychologists better tools to do their work.
When faced with a patient suffering from some sort of cognitive disorder, the first task a neuropsychologist takes on is attempting to discover whether the disorder is caused by an actual physical pathology, or whether it is purely a psychological disorder. This is done by using both psychological and neurological tools. For example, a patient may undertake a number of different standardized tests, looking at their memory function, broad intelligence, visual retention, and word association. They may also undergo a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) test, or Positron Emission Topography (PET) test to see if there are visible problems with the brain.
In recent years, neuropsychology has begun to utilize computer simulations more and more effectively. Referred to as Connectionism, this approach to neuropsychology uses complex artificial neural networks to simulate, at a very basic level, the human brain. Once a reasonable model has been developed, it can then be artificially damaged, simulating lesions or other physical traumas, to see what happens. Although no artificial neural network comes close to perfectly simulating the human brain, the level of fine control and data yielded makes Connectionism a very effective way to learn more about the consequences of brain injuries.
While the bulk of neuropsychology takes place at the clinical level, a great deal of popular interest is focused on experimental neuropsychology. This school studies healthy individuals, rather than those suffering from some sort of brain trauma, and looks at how they respond to different inputs. This is done to try to better understand how the way our brains work, and how they are impacted by our nervous system responses, which in turn can help clinical researchers discover new cures and treatments. Because of their popular nature, studies performed by experimental neuropsychologists are often written about by journalists in popular publications.