What Are Neurocognitive Disorders?
Neurocognitive disorders are
a group of conditions that frequently lead to impaired mental function. Organic brain syndrome used to be the
term to describe these conditions, but neurocognitive
disorders is now the more commonly used term.
Neurocognitive disorders most commonly occur in older adults, but
they can affect younger people as well. Reduced mental function may include:
- problems with memory
- changes in behavior
- difficulty understanding language
- trouble performing daily activities
These symptoms may
be caused by a neurodegenerative condition, such as Alzheimer’s disease or
dementia. Neurodegenerative diseases cause the brain and nerves to
deteriorate over time, resulting in a gradual loss of neurological function. Neurocognitive disorders can also
develop as a result of brain trauma or substance abuse. Healthcare providers
can usually determine the underlying cause of neurocognitive disorders based on the reported symptoms and
the results of diagnostic tests. The cause and severity of neurocognitive disorders can help
healthcare providers determine the best course of treatment.
The long-term outlook for people with neurocognitive disorders depends on the cause. When a neurodegenerative
disease causes the neurocognitive disorder,
the condition often gets worse over time. In other cases, decreased
mental function may only be temporary, so people can expect a full recovery.
What Are the Symptoms of Neurocognitive Disorders?
The symptoms of neurocognitive
disorders can vary depending on the cause. When the condition
occurs as a result of a neurodegenerative disease, people may experience:
- memory loss
Other symptoms that may occur in people with neurocognitive disorders include:
- headaches, especially in those with a concussion
or traumatic brain injury
- inability to concentrate or focus
- short-term memory loss
- trouble performing routine tasks, such as
- difficulty walking and balancing
- changes in vision
What Causes Neurocognitive Disorders?
The most common cause of neurocognitive
disorders is a neurodegenerative disease. Neurodegenerative
diseases that can lead to the development of neurocognitive disorders include:
In people under age 60, however, neurocognitive disorders are more likely to occur after an injury
or infection. Nondegenerative conditions that may cause neurocognitive disorders include:
- a concussion
- traumatic brain injury that causes bleeding in
the brain or space around the brain
- blood clots
- drug or alcohol abuse
- vitamin deficiency
What Are the Risk Factors for Neurocognitive Disorders?
Your risk of developing neurocognitive
disorders partly depends on your lifestyle and daily habits.
Working in an environment with exposure to heavy metals can greatly increase
your risk for neurocognitive disorders. Heavy
metals, such as lead and mercury, can damage the nervous system over time. This
means that frequent exposure to these metals puts you at an increased risk for
decreased mental function.
You’re also more likely to develop neurocognitive disorders if you:
- are over age 60
- have a cardiovascular disorder
- have diabetes
- abuse alcohol or drugs
- participate in sports with a high risk of head
trauma, such as football and rugby
How Are Neurocognitive Disorders Diagnosed?
Neurocognitive disorders aren’t
caused by a mental disorder. However, many of the symptoms of neurocognitive disorders are
similar to those of certain mental disorders, including schizophrenia, depression,
and psychosis. To ensure an accurate diagnosis, healthcare providers will
perform various diagnostic tests that can differentiate symptoms of neurocognitive disorders from those of
a mental disorder. These tests often include:
- cranial CT scan: This
test uses a series of X-ray images to create images of the skull, brain,
sinuses, and eye sockets. It may be used to examine the soft tissues in the
- head MRI scan: This
imaging test uses powerful magnets and radio waves to produce detailed images of
the brain. These pictures can show signs of brain damage.
- positron emission tomography
(PET) scan: A PET scan uses a special dye that contains radioactive
tracers. These tracers are injected into a vein and then spread throughout the
body, highlighting any damaged areas.
- electroencephalogram (EEG): An EEG measures the electrical activity in the brain. This test
can help detect any problems associated with this activity.
How Are Neurocognitive Disorders Treated?
Treatment for neurocognitive
disorders varies depending on the underlying cause. Certain conditions may
only require rest and medication. Neurodegenerative diseases may require
different types of therapy.
Treatments for neurocognitive
disorders may include:
- bed rest to give injuries time to heal
- pain medications, such as indomethacin,
to relieve headaches
- antibiotics to clear remaining infections affecting
the brain, such as meningitis
- surgery to repair any severe brain damage
- occupational therapy to help redevelop everyday
- physical therapy to improve strength,
coordination, balance, and flexibility
What Is the Long-Term Outlook for People with Neurocognitive
The long-term outlook for people with neurocognitive disorders depends on the type of
neurocognitive disorder. Neurocognitive disorders such as dementia or
Alzheimer’s present a challenging outlook. This is because there is no cure for
those conditions and mental function steadily gets worse over time.
However, the outlook for people with neurocognitive disorders, such as a concussion or infection, is
generally good because these are temporary and curable conditions. In these
cases, people can usually expect to make a full recovery.