What is neuropsychology?
Neuropsychology is a specialized field within clinical psychology that focuses on individuals with cognitive deficits related to disorders of the nervous system. Cognitive deficits involve attention, memory, language, perceptual skills, and executive functions such as planning, reasoning, problem solving, and mental flexibility. Examples of disorders of the nervous system are stroke, head injury, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and brain tumors. A large part of neuropsychology involves the administration and interpretation of cognitive tests. Neuropsychologists administer cognitive tests to individuals for a number of reasons: to determine the cause of cognitive deficits, to identify cognitive strengths and weaknesses, to determine the impact of an injury or disease on cognitive function, to determine the impact of a surgical or medical intervention on cognitive function, and to determine a diagnosis. The treatment provided by neuropsychologists typically involves psychotherapy for individuals with disorders of the nervous system, or cognitive rehabilitation to improve cognitive functioning. Therefore, neuropsychology lies at the intersection of clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, neurology and psychiatry.
To learn more about neuropsychology visit the websites of the National Academy of Neuropsychology (NAN), the International Neuropsychological Society (INS), and Division 40 of the American Psychological Association (the Society for Clinical Neuropsychology) at nanonline.org, the-ins.org, and div40.org, respectively. Specific training guidelines for neuropsychologists can be found on these websites. Also note that Loyola has a chapter of the student branch of Division 40 called the Association for Neuropsychology Students in Training (ANST). Contact Dr. Higginson if you are interested in becoming a member.
What is the difference between neuropsychology and neuroscience?
Neuropsychology is an element of neuroscience. Neuroscience is a very broad field that studies the brain. Many scientific fields contribute to neuroscience, including biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and psychology. The elements of neuroscience that psychology focuses on are called behavioral or cognitive neuroscience. Although all neuroscientists study the brain in some way, not all neuroscientists treat patients. Those neuroscientists that treat patients are typically physicians (i.e., MD’s specializing in neurology or psychiatry) or clinical psychologists (i.e., Ph.D.’s or Psy.D.’s specializing in neuropsychology). All clinical psychologists learn how to do research as a part of their training and most have to successfully complete a large research project (i.e., a thesis or dissertation) before they obtain their degree, however most physicians do not obtain this in-depth training in research. The neuroscientists that do not treat patients are researchers with Ph.D.’s that work at universities and sometimes private organizations such as pharmaceutical companies.
How does one obtain training in neuropsychology?
Typically, neuropsychologists obtain doctoral degrees in clinical psychology (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) then obtain a few years of additional specialized postdoctoral training (“postdocs”). Some doctoral training programs in clinical psychology offer specialized training in neuropsychology. These programs vary a great deal in terms of the number of neuropsychologists on the faculty, number of courses in neuropsychology offered, and number of externships or practica in neuropsychology available. The programs are limited in number and entrance is highly competitive, typically more competitive than other doctoral programs in clinical psychology. The Society for Clinical Neuropsychology maintains a list of doctoral programs that identify themselves as offering training in neuropsychology that can be found at div40.org. Note that this is not an exhaustive list. Another way to find programs where you can obtain graduate training in neuropsychology is to browse neuropsychology journals such as Neuropsychology, the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, and the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society for articles that interest you. Loyola’s library has electronic access to some of these journals. Look at the academic affiliations of the authors for psychology departments or contact the authors directly to determine if they are taking graduate students.
What training in neuropsychology is offered at Loyola?
Currently, Loyola has two faculty members within the Psychology Department that are neuropsychologists, Dr. Christopher Higginson and Dr. Tamra Shockley. Dr. Shockley teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses and provides clinical supervision to psychology graduate students. In addition to these tasks, Dr. Higginson conducts neuropsychological research and supervises graduate student theses and dissertations.
Due to the specialized, integrative, and applied nature of the material, little coursework in neuropsychology is offered at the undergraduate level at any university. At Loyola, the Psychology Department offers a course entitled “Introduction to Human Neuropsychology” (PY332), one of the three courses that fulfill the biopsychology requirement for a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology.
Because entrance into doctoral programs that have specialized training in neuropsychology is highly competitive, it is important to obtain research and/or clinical experience as early as possible before applying to graduate school. At Loyola, Dr. Higginson’s research involves the cognitive deficits associated with Parkinson’s disease, and the degree to which neuropsychological measures predict real world functioning. Please contact Dr. Higginson via email if you are interested in volunteering in his lab as a research assistant (RA). Keep in mind that you will need to commit to a number of hours per semester for multiple, consecutive semesters. This is because it takes a significant amount of time to learn lab tasks. It is possible for RA’s to obtain course credit for their work, but many volunteer to obtain the experience and to obtain a recommendation letter for their application to graduate schools.
There is also the possibility to obtain some clinical experience in neuropsychology at the Center for the Prevention and Rehabilitation of Brain Injury and Disease (CPRBID) at the Loyola Clinical Centers at Belvedere Square. This experience will initially involve shadowing a neuropsychologist and/or extern during their clinical work on Thursdays and Fridays. After a period of shadowing, interested students may be granted some minor clinical responsibilities.
Opportunities for undergraduates to obtain clinical or research experience in neuropsychology in the Baltimore area (outside Loyola) are limited. This is common regardless of location because there are few neuropsychologists in general and because undergraduates typically do not have the time, training or experience necessary. The Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins maintains two web pages that list opportunities in Neuroscience in general, not neuropsychology, specifically. They are pbs.jhu.edu/undergrad/intern-opp and pbs.jhu.edu/undergrad/research-opp. You could also contact faculty at nearby universities and teaching hospitals that conduct research that sound interesting to you. Johns Hopkins (including KKI), Towson, UMD, UMBC, Goucher all have faculty that study topics in neuropsychology.
At the graduate level, the Psychology Department offers a course entitled “Neuropsychological Assessment” (PY604/886) which can be taken by both Master’s and Doctoral students. In addition, there are a number of excellent clinical and experimental neuropsychology externships in the Baltimore area that are open to both Master’s and Doctoral students. The quality and breadth of these training opportunities is amongst the best in the country and Loyola’s students fair very well in obtaining these externships. Amongst these is a neuropsychology externship at the Loyola Clinical Centers that is open to both Master’s and Doctoral students. This externship is within the interdisciplinary Center for the Prevention and Rehabilitation of Brain Injury and Disease (CPRBID) and involves both neuropsychological assessment and rehabilitation psychotherapy for individuals of limited means experiencing chronic deficits associated with nervous system disorders.
Students who are considering applying to Loyola’s doctoral program in clinical psychology and are interested in neuropsychology as a career should keep in mind that our program does not have a specialized track in neuropsychology. Because of this our students have difficulty competing against students from specialized doctoral programs for predoctoral internships and postdocs with a neuropsychology focus. Furthermore, because of the complex nature of neuropsychological assessment, doctoral students are not encouraged to obtain some limited experience in neuropsychology in order to offer neuropsychological services post-licensure as a small element of their practice, as it is unlikely that they will be adequately trained to do so. However, because of the rich train opportunities described above, Loyola is well-suited to students who are considering master’s programs as an intermediate step to a doctoral program that offers specialized training in neuropsychology, and doctoral students can still benefit from the training and coursework in neuropsychology that we do offer.