What is the difference between neurology and psychology?

You will meet the question about what is the difference between neurology and psychology, either as a bachelor choosing the profession of his/her life and admires the magnificence of the human brain,  as some who is seeking help for emotional distress, or a hospital administrator in his first job who is organizing the stipends for every medical department.  If both professions are concerned with the nervous system, are they similar or different?

Well, even though both professions base their principles on the nervous system functioning, there are big differences between them. Neurology is a medical specialty; psychology is not. You do not need a medical degree to become a psychologist, but you have to if you want to be a neurologist.

You will learn here which are the basis, purposes, tools, and beauty of both professions and the requirements to enter in each of them.

Neurology is a branch of medicine

Neurology is a part of medicine devoted to the assessment and treatment of diseases of the nervous system. Those diseases may be due to alterations in the central nervous system, blood vessels, the muscular system, or in the nerves. Before I tell you more about those diseases and their treatments, I will briefly explain to you the anatomy of the above-mentioned structures.

The central nervous system

The central nervous system comprises the brain and the spinal cord. The brain is inside the skull, and the spinal cord is inside the spine. The brain and the spinal cord are organs with a diverse array of tissues, but for our purposes, the main tissue is neural, which is composed of cells called neurons.

Neurons are complex cells composed of soma or body and its extensions. These are dendrites and axons. Neurons communicate with each other and send fast electrical pulses. These pulses, called membrane potentials, is how the nervous system manages the neural information. 

When the dendrites and axons leave the skull or the spine, they organize as nerves, thus conforming to the peripheral nervous system. The nerves contain axons and dendrites and transmit information from the central nervous system to muscles and glands, or information from the senses (eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue) to the central nervous system.   

The vessels

These are tubular structures that carry the blood from the heart to the rest of the body and then back to the heart. There are several types of vessels: arteries, arterioles, capillaries, small veins, and large veins. 

The muscular system

The muscles are structures located all along the body and are formed by cells that have a key property: they contract, and this way they produce movements. There are three types of muscular cells: a) skeletal muscles, which allow the movement of the head, face, eyes, trunk, abdomen, arms, and legs; b) heart muscle, and; c) smooth muscle, located in the digestive, respiratory and vascular system.  

Functional divisions of the nervous system

There are several forms of classifying the diverse sections of the nervous system: one is 1) somatic, and 2) autonomic. The former coordinates the skeletal muscle function and the senses; the last controls the functions of the viscera (intestinal system, lungs, kidneys) the heart, and vessels. 

Another classification of the nervous system: 1) brain and spinal cord; 2) heart nervous system, and 3) visceral nervous system. 

Each part of the nervous system may be affected by pathological processes, which may be: 

  • Inflammation.
  • Infections.
  • Injuries.
  • Structural anomalies.
  • Cancer.

The professional career of neurology

  • After finishing high school, you must take a bachelor’s program, which may be in biology, chemistry, neuroscience, or the humanities. 
  • Then you go into medical school for 4 years.
  • After internship (2 years as an average) you course the neurology residence or specialty, which lasts between 3 or 4 years. After residence, you are already a neurologist and you may start working as a general specialist. However, it is common to enter a sub-specialty program or fellowship such as:
  1. Child neurology.
  2. Epilepsy.
  3. Cognitive disorders (dementia, mental retardation).
  4. Interventional neurology (strokes and other affections).
  5. Abnormal movement disorders (Parkinson and Huntington diseases, Tourette syndrome, tics).
  6. Neurodegenerative disorders (multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, myasthenia gravis).
  7. Nervous system infections. 
  8. Behavioral neurology.
  9. Migraine and other headaches.
  10. Management of pain.
  11. Metabolic disorders.
  12. Epidemiology. 
  13. Cancer (neuro-oncology).
  14. Clinical neurophysiology.
  15. Basic or clinical research. 

The diagnostic tools for a neurologist

  • A detailed clinical history, at the individual and familiar level.
  • A careful clinical examination.
  • Blood tests: chemistry, infections, immunology, genetics. 
  • Brain chemistry.
  • Imaging procedures: x rays, tomography, magnetic resonance, spectroscopy.
  • Bioelectrical tests: electroencephalography, electromyography, brain evoked potentials. 
  • Neurocognitive tests. 

The therapeutical tools for a neurologist

The neurologist provides pharmacological and behavioral treatments. As an interventional neurologist, he/she may use invasive procedures to dissolve cloths or obstructions in the nervous system vessels. Surgical procedures are carried out by a neurosurgeon, who is a physician with specific training in nervous system surgery. Although neurology and neurosurgery are related specialties, they considerably differ in their technical procedures.  

What is psychology?

Psychology is the scientific study of mind, behavior, and emotions. It explores the influence of biological, social, and environmental factors on the processes of thought, behaviors, and emotions in humans and animals as well.  

The psychology field thus, also explores the development of personality, motivation, and professional skills.

Psychology has an extensive application field. Psychologists evaluate, diagnose, and treat dysfunctions in emotions, behavior, reasoning, learning, work, and sports performance associated with physical or mental disorders. They design, perform, and coordinate programs aimed at promoting mental health and improving quality of life. They also provide vocational orientation and communication skills. Psychologists are key members of research groups investigating diverse topics related to the nervous system.

How do you become a psychologist?

  • You must have a bachelor’s degree in general psychology.
  • Then you must enter a master’s degree program, in which you will focus on the specific area of your interest. Therefore, there are numerous types of master’s programs; you must select the one that properly fits your personal and professional profile. 
  • At a more advanced level, you can do a doctorate, where you will optimize your professional skills in a specific field.
  •  You will probably have to be in an internship program to get a state license.

As you can see, a psychologist is not a physician. Psychologists study the mental functions (behavior, emotions, thoughts, personality). While these features are dependent on the function of the nervous system, the areas of interest of a psychologist are different from those of a neurologist.  

Below you will find a list of the major areas within psychology.

  • Abnormal psychology: this branch is devoted to the study of the origins and development of abnormal behavior and mental disorders. 
  • Biological psychology: it studies the influence of biological factors in the structure and functioning of the normal and diseased mind. 
  • Child psychology: this refers to research and/or clinical practice in topics typically arising in childhood, such as learning disabilities, Asperger spectrum, mental retardation, enuresis, encopresis, child schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and many other topics.  
  • Clinical psychology: it is devoted to the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment is focused on the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of psychopathology.
  • Cognitive psychology: it is the study of human and animal mechanisms of the diverse mental functions, such as memory, thought, language, perception, judgment, decision-making, and problem-solving.
  • Comparative psychology: this is a branch of psychology that studies the similarities and differences in the behavior of organisms, including humans.
  • Developmental psychology: it is concerned with mental functions along with the lifespan. 
  • Forensic psychology: it applies the psychological knowledge in the legal and criminal areas. 
  • Industrial-organizational psychology: it uses psychological expertise to improve work environments at the individual and group levels. 
  • Personality psychology: it studies the development and course of personality along with the lifespan.
  • Social psychology: it studies how mental functions change or are modulated by social interaction. Conspicuous topics are psychological constructs such as attitudes, violence, xenophobia, sexuality, criminality, and related issues. 
  • Experimental psychology: it is a branch related to most of the above-mentioned areas, but I mention it here to emphasize that the psychologists use the experimental method, either in individual, familial, social, or industrial issues.
  • Sport psychology: it assists players and trainers in improving concentration, performance, and discipline skills.  

The diagnostic tools for psychologists

  • Paper and pencil tests.
  • Computational tests with images, videos, sounds, smells, odors, mathematical calculations, language tasks. These tests may often evaluate specific brain areas and/or functions.
  • Personality inventories.
  • Brain images, which are similar to most of the above-described for the case of neurologists.
  • In specific cases, the psychologists explore the blood and brain chemistry, generally coupled to genetic tests. 
  • A wide array of electrophysiological tests, for example, electroencephalography, skin impedance, eye movements, and many others. 

The therapeutic tools for psychologists

  • All types of psychotherapy including behavioral training in individuals, couples, families, organization groups, the military, and many others.
  • Computational systems such as biofeedback, superficial or deep-brain magnetic stimulation, programs to improve the executive functions, such as memory, decision-making, attention, obsessions, compulsions, and others.

When should I visit a neurologist?

  • The neurologist diagnoses and treats diseases arising in physical damages to the nervous system.
  • Visit a neurologist whenever you have a symptom or sign of nervous system dysfunction such as headache, seizures, dizziness, blurred vision, sudden loss of vision, audition, taste, olfaction, arm or leg weakness, tremor, tics, facial paralysis, and many others. 
  • When your general or family practitioner suspects a neurological disorder.

When should I visit a psychologist and not a psychiatrist?

  • You might be referred to a psychologist by your family physician or another physician when they consider that your physical discomfort is related to an emotional, cognitive, or thought-related process. 
  • When you feel depressed, anxious, fearful, in a marital dispute, undergoing sexual dysfunction, afflicted by problems with your coworkers or boss.
  • When you need vocational orientation and/or an intelligence test.   
  • Psychiatrists but not psychologists are physicians, trained in the diagnosis and treatment of primary mental disorders. Psychiatrists use psychotropic drugs such as antipsychotics, antidepressants, anxiolytics, mood stabilizers, cognitive enhancers, and anticonvulsants. Psychiatrists may also practice psychotherapy in addition to drug therapy.  

You may be faced with the decision of whether to visit a neurologist or a psychologist. Both are respected professionals concerned with the human nervous system and it is common to be confused about the role of each one. The neurologist is a physician that uses drugs and rehabilitation procedures to treat brain and spine diseases. The psychologist is not a physician and is trained to assess and treat without drugs, psychological dysfunctions in people with or without nervous system illnesses. 

References (in addition to linked text above)

ACGME Program Requirements for Graduate Medical Education in Neurology. www.acgme.org. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 January 2017. 

Brain, Ch. (2002). Advanced psychology: applications, issues, and perspectives. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes. ISBN 0-17-490058-9

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