Advances in technology have paved the way for new possibilities when it comes to investigating brain function in a living human. Neuropsychiatry is an integrative medical specialty that combines elements of psychiatry, neurology, and neuropsychology with a focus on the relationship between brain and behavior.
Although it has roots that trace back to 19th century Europe, the scope of neuropsychiatry has evolved over time. It is now considered a growing subspecialty in contemporary medicine.
But what is neuropsychiatry, exactly? We’ll detail the definition and evolution of this field and the responsibilities of a neuropsychiatrist.
How is neuropsychiatry defined?
Consider this neuropsychiatry definition according to the International Neuropsychiatric Association: “A field of scientific medicine that concerns itself with the complex relationship between human behavior and brain function, and endeavors to understand abnormal behavior and behavioral disorders on the basis of an interaction of neurobiological and psychological-social factors.”
In simpler terms, neuropsychiatry aims to bridge the gap between neurology and psychiatry when it comes to both the evaluation and treatment of disorders related to the brain and nervous systems. Neuropsychiatrists view the brain as the organ from which all behavior emerges. Their primary goal is to increase knowledge and understanding of brain-behavior relationships and expand therapeutic interventions.
What does a neuropsychiatrist do?
These specialists provide evaluation and treatment for emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and perceptual difficulties in the context of neurologic illness. Neuropsychiatric conditions include cognitive disturbances and psychiatric symptoms secondary to the following:
- Movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease
- Seizure disorders
- Traumatic brain injury
- Substance-induced disorders
- Cerebrovascular disease
Not all patients who are referred to a neuropsychiatrist will have already received a diagnosis, however. In such cases, physicians can also help determine the underlying cause of worrisome symptoms by completing a neuropsychiatric evaluation. This can involve performing neurological exams; studying a patient’s motor functions, coordination, reflexes, cranial nerves, and posture; and interviewing the patient to determine their cognitive status.
Possible symptoms that may lead a patient to seek a neuropsychiatric evaluation include:
- Depression, mania, and/or anxiety
- Challenges related to focusing and learning
- Insomnia or other sleep disorders
- Interpersonal difficulties, such as unpredictable moods and behaviors
The key component of a neuropsychiatric disorder is that the symptoms tend to impact brain function, emotion, and mood. Causes can range from a genetic predisposition to traumatic brain injuries, infections, medication side effects, or even environmental factors.
Just as there are many causes of neuropsychiatric disorders, there are various types of treatment neuropsychiatrists may prescribe. Medication regimens, psychological counseling, and/or psychiatric therapy are all common. Specific treatment plans are determined based on the precise cause, clinical presentation, and severity of the neuropsychiatric disorder.
Regardless of the method of treatment, neuropsychiatrists always aim to help patients and their families better understand and deal with the psychological effects of their disorders.
How do you become a neuropsychiatrist?
The duties of a neuropsychiatrist require proficiency in psychiatry, neuroscience, and general medicine. It’s also crucial to stay up to date on the latest neuroscientific discoveries and experimental therapies.
As with all physician roles, if you seek to become a neuropsychiatrist, you must earn a bachelor’s degree before completing an MD program at an accredited medical school. You’ll then need to participate in a four-year residency program in neurology, psychiatry — or both — after which you’ll have the option to take on a fellowship in neuropsychiatry to further your specialized training.
Aspiring specialists can then become certified through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, which will make you eligible to sit for a certification exam with United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties to obtain board certifications in both behavioral neurology and neuropsychiatry.
Make an impact as a neuropsychiatrist
Doctors who specialize in neuropsychiatry help us better understand the neurological underpinnings of psychiatric and neurologic disorders so that patients can receive higher-quality, more effective treatment.
Now that you know what neuropsychiatry is and its importance, you may feel called to pursue this subspecialty. Completing the medical training needed to become a neuropsychiatrist can be extensive, but the life-changing work you’ll be able to do as a licensed and board-certified physician can make it all worth it.
The most effective way to get started is to seek out a high-quality medical school that can provide you with the foundational education and training you’ll need. Learn more about what you should be looking for in our article “How to Choose a Medical School: 8 Things to Evaluate Before Accepting.”