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 diseasescause 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.

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
  • confusion
  • anxiety

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 driving
  • difficulty walking and balancing
  • changes in vision

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
  • meningitis
  • encephalitis
  • septicemia
  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • vitamin deficiency

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

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 brain.
  • 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.

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 skills
  • physical therapy to improve strength, coordination, balance, and flexibility

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.