According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the term neuropsychology refers to the study of the relationship between behavior, emotion, and cognition on the one hand, and brain function on the other. Put simply, it is the attempt to understand the link between brain function and the anatomy and physiology of the brain.
Origins of the Science
The beginnings of neuropsychology can be traced back as far as the earliest philosophies of medicine, from Imhotep, whose writings indicated a scientific theory of the function of the brain, to Hippocrates, who is often regarded as the very first physician to recognize the brain as the seat of the soul, but the modern neuropsychological approach truly finds its origins in the work of Jean-Baptiste Bouillaud. Bouillaud developed a theory that posited a specific function for specific regions of the brain and helped lay the groundwork for a neurological approach to psychology.
Karl Lashley, who received his Ph.D. in genetics from Johns Hopkins University with a minor in Psychology, was perhaps one of the most influential modern figures to make significant strides in neuropsychological research. It was his work, and that of his colleagues at universities and research facilities around the globe, that helped illustrate the versatility and resilience of the brain. His discovery, that a portion of any given area of the brain can carry out the function of the entire area – even when the rest of the area is destroyed or removed – now understood as neuroplasticity, was a key development in neurology that helped further the development of neuropsychological theories that would later become a formal field of study.
Of course, in order to study the link between the anatomy and physiology of the brain and its function, a patient must be conscious and performing said cognitive and motor functions so that researchers and neuropsychologists can accurately determine which parts of the brain correlate to which functions.
– Medical Imaging
Thanks to the development of medical imagining technologies such as the fMRI and PET, as well as electrophysiological tests such as magneto-encephalography, neuropsychological researchers no longer have to rely solely on invasive techniques.
– Standardized Tests
Tests such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, the Benton Visual Retention Test, and others can provide key insights into neuropsychological functioning of individuals when compared against standard results in a clinical setting.
Software applications developed based on neuropsychological concepts are already in use which, in combinations with medical imaging technologies, give researchers insight into the complex neurocognitive processes such as habit formation, as illustrated in this study published in the Stanford Medical Journal.
Practical Applications of Neuropsychology
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are many clinical applications of the neuropsychological assessments and theories developed from this field of study. In addition to the applications listed in that article, there are many practical technological developments that could potentially arise from a complete theory of neurocognitive functioning, such as new and more effective educational approaches, better integration between computers and the human brain, and even the development of immersive entertainment systems that employ neuropsychological concepts to create a more engaging experience for the end-user.
Though still in its infancy, the study of the link between brain function and brain structure is rapidly developing as new technologies allow researchers to peer even deeper in an attempt to understand the way our brains work.