If you’re having trouble concentrating or making decisions, some simple tests might be helpful in figuring out what’s wrong. They’re called neuropsychological tests.
Neuropsychology looks at how the health of your brain affects your thinking skills and behavior.
These tests are usually done with a pencil and paper in a doctor’s office. They may also be done on a computer. Or, a neuropsychologist may just ask you a series of questions that you answer orally.
What’s on These Tests?
These tests help your doctors look at your attention span and how well you concentrate on things. Other areas covered by neuropsychological testing include:
- Your ability to think, understand, learn, and remember (cognition)
- Motor function (walking, coordination, etc.)
- Perception (how well you take in what you see or read)
- Problem-solving and decision-making
- Verbal ability
Here are some examples of the kinds of tests you might be given:
Memory test: Repeat a list of words, sentences, or numbers.
Cognition test: Explain how two items are like. For instance, if you see a picture of a dog and a cat, you might answer that they’re both animals or that they are both pets.
Verbal communication test: Name some items as the person giving the test points at them. You might also be given a letter of the alphabet and told to list words that start with that letter.
Motor tests: These might include tasks such as inserting pegs into a pegboard using one hand and then the other.
You might also be given tests to see how your hearing and vision affect your thinking and memory.
When Do I Need This Kind of Testing?
You usually take a neurological test when you have a noticeable change in your thinking or memory. They help doctors figure out whether your problems are caused by any of the following:
- Disease, such as Alzheimer’s
- Brain injury
- Emotional disorders, such as depression or anxiety
- Normal brain changes related to getting older
It is especially important for doctors to find out about thinking problems in cases where the patient has a movement disorder, such as Parkinson’s disease. This is a condition that affects the brain cells that control movement and coordination.
People with Parkinson’s eventually can have trouble with their memory or with communication. If you have Parkinson's, you might get a neuropsychological test soon after diagnosis. Results from future tests can then be compared with that first test to see how the disease is changing your thinking skills.
Preparing for the Tests
No matter what type of neurological test you take, you won’t need to study for it. There are a few things you should do before the test, however:
- Get a good night’s sleep, since being tired affects how you think.
- Eat a good breakfast.
- Don’t drink anything with alcohol in it the night before the test.
- Ask your doctor about whether you can take any medications, including sleep medicine, the night before.
- Tell the psychologist about any previous psychological tests you’ve taken.
- Relax and don’t worry about the results.
You or a loved one should bring a list of all your medications. If you have trouble answering questions about your medical history or symptoms, bring someone along who can.
Taking the Tests
Part of the testing will include a review of your medical history. If you’ve had a stroke, for instance, you may have a harder time thinking or talking. It will help the neuropsychologist to better understand your challenges if she knows that you’ve had a stroke.Your neuropsychologist will also interview you or someone close to you to learn more about your symptoms. She will then decide what tests will be given.
A technician who works with the neuropsychologist will actually give you the tests. This person is usually a “psychometrist,” a person who is trained to give and score these tests. Or the person may be a student working on a doctoral degree in psychology.
The testing may take 3 to 6 hours. It depends on how at ease you are and how quickly you and the technician can go through all the questions. You'll get breaks during the session. In some cases, you might need to make more than one visit.
After the Tests
Once the tests are done, the neuropsychologist will go over the results and write a report. It will include a diagnosis and suggestions for treatment, if any is needed.
The treatment plan could include more medical tests, such as a CT or MRI scan of your brain. This is helpful in looking for tumors or other diseases.
Whatever the results are, they will become part of your permanent medical history. They will be helpful in understanding your current health picture and your future medical needs, too.
If you’re ever told you should undergo neuropsychological testing, understand that the tests are meant to get a picture of your brain health at this moment. Your thinking skills may get worse, or they may improve.
When you and your doctor get more information about your brain now, you’ll both be able to make smarter decisions about your mental and physical health later.