Cognition is defined as the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. Cognitive disorders (CDs), also known as neurocognitive disorders (NCDs), are a category of mental health disorders that primarily affect cognitive abilities including learning, memory, perception, and problem-solving. These disorders happen due to an acquired decline in the functioning of one or more cognitive areas in our brains. Some like Parkinson’s can cause physical disability.
What are neurocognitive disorders?
Previously, such disorders were collectively termed dementia, but with the advancement of medical science, we have come to discover that there are a number of conditions that are different from each other in cause and in effect.
Some of the major degenerative conditions that cause neurocognitive disorders are:-
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Huntington’s disease
- Prion disease
- Multiple sclerosis
Degenerative conditions cause 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. The biggest catalyst of degenerative conditions is age and that is why they are commonly seen in people over 60. For people under age 60, however, neurocognitive disorders are more likely to occur after an injury or infection. Nondegenerative conditions that may cause neurocognitive disorders to include:
- Brain injury that causes bleeding
- Blood clots
- Substance abuse
- Vitamin deficiency
The final outlook for people with neurocognitive disorders depends on the cause. When it is caused by a neurodegenerative disease the condition often gets worse over time. In other cases, the decreased mental function may only be temporary, so people can expect a full recovery with treatment.
Symptoms and Risk Factors
Again, the symptoms of neurocognitive disorders depend upon their type and their underlying causes. For degenerative conditions, patients may experience memory loss, confusion, anxiety, and depression.
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
Age is the biggest risk in terms of degenerative disorders. Substance and alcohol abuse is another. Thus, lifestyle and habits play an important role. Some pollutants can also directly affect the brain and cause cognitive disorders. Some of the other major risk factors for NCDs are: –
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Participation in highly physical sports like football or rugby
- Exposure to heavy metals such as lead or mercury
Frequent exposure to such heavy metals should be avoided as they not only cause damage to the nervous system but are also carcinogenic.
Diagnosis and treatment of neurocognitive disorders
Many of the symptoms of neurocognitive disorders are similar to those of certain mental disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, and psychosis. Thus, doctors need to carefully diagnose and differentiate between symptoms of NCDs and mental disorders.
Some of the methods to diagnose neurocognitive disorders are: –
- Cranial CT scan for imaging the brain and examining soft tissues
- Head MRI scan provides a detailed image of the brain and a clear extent of the damage
- Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan uses a special dye that contains
radioactive tracers. When injected they highlight the damaged areas.
- Electroencephalogram (EEG)measures the electrical activity in the brain
Treatment depends on underlying causes for neurocognitive disorders. Some conditions require medication and rest while others require more specialized therapy. Some of the common treatment procedures for NCDs are: –
- Bed rest to give injuries time to heal
- Pain medications 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
In most, disorders patients can make a full or partial recovery but conditions like dementia or Alzheimer’s present a challenging outlook because there is no cure for those conditions, and mental function steadily gets worse over time.