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Understanding neurocognitive disorders: Types, causes, symptoms and treatment

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Neurocognitive disorder might not be a common term discussed in many households, but unfortunately, the occurrence of neurocognitive disorders is common.

What is a neurocognitive disorder?

The term neurocognitive disorders describes a group of conditions that weaken a person's mental functions. A person isn't born with this kind of disorder. Instead, they acquire it through another medical condition that leads to damage in the brain.

What are the most common causes of neurocognitive disorders?

Neurocognitive disorders can affect people of all ages and health backgrounds, but they're more common in older adults. The most common causes of neurocognitive disorders include:

  • Degenerative conditions affecting the brain and nervous system, including dementia such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and Huntington’s disease
  • Too little oxygen in the blood (hypoxia)
  • Too much carbon dioxide in the blood (hypercarbia)
  • A blow to the head that causes a concussion or bleeding in or around the brain (traumatic brain injury)
  • Conditions affecting the brain vascular system, including strokes and "mini-strokes" (transient ischemic attacks, or TIA)
  • Conditions affecting internal organs, including kidney disease and liver disease
  • Severe vitamin deficiency
  • Infections, including infections of the heart, blood, and brain
  • Complications related to cancer
  • Intoxication or withdrawal from drugs or alcohol, or long-term effects of excessive drug and alcohol use

Doctors can diagnose a neurocognitive disorder with things like:

  • Blood tests
  • Neuropsychologic testing
  • Imaging studies of the brain (using machines like an MRI or CT scanner)
  • Tests of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid, obtained by lumbar puncture (spinal tap))
  • A test that looks at the brain's electrical activity (EEG)

Symptoms of neurocognitive disorders

Symptoms of neurocognitive disorders will vary from person to person. This is because many different things can cause neurocognitive disorders. They also can affect many different parts of the brain.

The most common signs and symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty remembering and focusing
  • Changes in a person’s normal behavior
  • Vision problems
  • Increased anxiety
  • Increased agitation
  • Trouble performing daily activities, like driving and managing money

Sometimes, a neurocognitive disorder can also impair a person's movement. For instance, they may have trouble walking, keeping their balance or performing fine motor skills (such as buttoning a blouse or using utensils). They may also have trouble seeing, communicating or understanding others.

Symptoms may come on suddenly (acute) and then disappear, or develop slowly over time (chronic). 

Treatments available for neurocognitive disorder

Some types of neurocognitive disorders are temporary. With the right treatment, some people experience a full recovery. Other types of neurocognitive disorders are more challenging. They can be permanent, or get worse over time. For people with these types of conditions, treatment can help manage symptoms or slow the progression of the disease. 

Specific treatment depends on the type of disorder, but some of the most common ones include:

  • Medication, like memory enhancers or antibiotics
  • Surgery (to repair injured parts of the brain)
  • Physical, occupational, speech and cognitive therapy
  • Family and caregiver support

SIU Medicine’s experienced physicians provide insightful and compassionate care for people with neurocognitive disorders. Our doctors have direct access to the latest advances in academic medicine, research and clinical trials, including those related to many neurocognitive disorders.

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