How to Become a Neurological Psychologist [2024 Schooling and Career Guide]

Last Updated: June 25, 2024

What is a Neurological Psychologist?

The brain is a complex organ that plays a role in everything from physical functions to emotional state. A neurological psychologist is a psychologist that specializes in understanding how the structure and functions of the brain and nervous system plays a role in behavior and cognition. The field of neurological psychology is relatively new and is considered a subspecialty of clinical psychology.

Neurological psychologists differ from other types of psychologists in that they have a thorough understanding of neuroanatomy and focus on brain-behavior relationships. They also strive to understand the connection between the brain and how neurological disorders can affect the mind including learning, behavior and feelings a person may have.

For instance, when an individual has a neurological disorder, such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease, it can affect their mood, memory and behavior. A neurological psychologist may work in conjunction with neurologists and other doctors to evaluate and treat patients with these types of conditions.

Neurological psychology has been heavily influenced by the works of Dr. Ziegler. He first recognized the value of integrating attachment theory with brain research when working with abused children. He noted that positive psychological changes within the client vastly increased their chance at achieving wellness.

What Does a Neurological Psychologist Do?

As mentioned above, neurological psychologists study the relationship between brain function and how that plays a role in what an individual does and how they behave.

Neurological psychologists usually work clinically diagnosing patients, or they perform research. Some neurological psychologists may also be involved in both clinical work and research.

Neurological psychologists believe that damage to the patient’s emotional well-being has occurred in a process which contains stages that can then be tracked backwards to wellness. Rather than specifically tailoring treatment plans for the patient, a lot of consideration is given to maximizing the psychologist’s strengths, so that the patient is very skilled within session. The assets of the psychologist are then joined with the patient, in order to co-create health.  This type of therapy places specialized emphasis on having a destination in mind for the client, both in therapy and in life.

A large part of what clinical neurological psychologists do is evaluate and perform assessments to determine impairments or neurobehavioral problems a person may be experiencing. For example, a neurological psychologist will perform several types of tests, which evaluate different functions of the brain. They may perform tests to look at the function of a specific area of the brain or the entire brain function.

Assessments may include personality tests, language and speech assessments and cognitive tests. Part of evaluating the function or dysfunction of the brain may also include studying brain scans to determine if there is physical damage to a certain part of the brain.

Related Reading: How to Become a Neuropsychologist

Neurological psychologists look at the information they gained from assessments and brain scans and determine what deficits or behaviors may be related to problems in the function of a certain area of the brain.

The type of patients a neurological treats may vary based on the setting they work in. In general, neurological psychologists often diagnose and treat people with traumatic brain injuries, strokes and neuropsychiatric conditions. They may also work with patients with neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and neurodevelopmental disorders including learning disabilities.

Some neurological psychologists are only involved in diagnosing impairments while others also part of the treatment team addressing a patient’s deficits. Based on their assessments, neurological may recommend certain types of therapy, such as occupational or speech therapy. They may also perform certain types of cognitive rehabilitation.

A certain subset of neurological psychologists may only be involved in research and may focus on conducting studies and evaluating results.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become a Neurological Psychologist?

The field of neuropsychology is complex, and an extensive education is required to work as a neurological psychologist. Similar to other types of psychologists, earning a bachelor’s degree is the first step to becoming a neurological psychologist.

Although it is not mandatory to major in a certain area of study, individuals interested in a career as a neurological psychologist often choose to major in psychology, neuroscience or a related field. Undergrad classes often include biology, anatomy and psychology.

A master’s degree in psychology is the next step. Neuropsychology master’s degree programs are offered at some universities. More common are master’s degree programs in psychology that offer a concentration in a specific area, such as neuropsychology. Students get a broad education and take classes in statistics and experimental psychology. But also complete classes in their concentration including behavior and learning brain processes and neuroanatomy.

Education continues at the doctorate level for someone interested in becoming a neurological psychologist. Doctorate programs are available in clinical neuropsychology and neuropsychology. A doctorate program in either can take up to seven years to complete. Students learn to administer tests to evaluate brain function.

Doctoral candidates also focus their studies on causes of neurological disorders and principles of neuroscience. Completion of research projects and a practicum working under the direction of a neurological psychologist may also be required.

What are the Work Experience Requirements?

As with any other modality, neurological psychologists are required to complete internships and specific number of supervised work experience, working directly with the populations they intend to treat.

What are the Requirements for Licensure?

In the United States, licensure is required to practice as a neurological psychologist. Individual states set their licensure process and requirements. For example, a few states have a specifically designated neuropsychology license. In most cases, neuropsychologists become licensed as a clinical psychologist and not specifically a neuropsychologist. Typically, the requirements for state licensure include a doctorate in psychology and completion of a certain number of hours working in clinical psychology.

An optional certification in neuropsychology is offered through the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology. Requirements for certification include completion of a doctorate in psychology, state licensure and one year of supervised experience working in neuropsychology. After all requirements are met, applicants are eligible to take a written and oral exam.

What Skills are Needed for a Neurological Psychologist?

In order to become a neurological psychologist, one needs a number of highly developed personal strengths. High levels of deductive reasoning, administrative abilities, empathy, compassion, sensitivity, and a love of children are just a few of the skills needed to become a great neurological psychologist.

One must also have the emotional health necessary to endure the constant re-telling of stories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, a willingness to engage in healthy play, a good sense of boundaries, and a background in art are also helpful.

Why Do We Need Neurological Psychologists?

A brain injury or a neurological condition can affect every area of a person’s life from their physical well-being to their emotional state and behavior. Because of the complexity of the brain, it is not always evident why an individual may have certain deficits.

Neurological psychologists are needed to determine how the physical brain influences behaviors and function. By understanding how the brain is related to a particular impairment or behavior, it can assist doctors in developing treatment plans for people with brain injuries and certain neurological conditions. It may also help doctors prevent certain impairments more effectively.

For example, if an area of the brain is damaged due to a stroke or head trauma, neurological psychologists may be able to assess what part of the brain is damaged and what impairments may be a result of that damage. With that knowledge, doctors can implement more targeted treatment and help someone improve their level of functioning and quality of life.

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