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What Are the Different Causes of Cognitive Deficits?

Cognitive function declines with age.
Cognitive disorders alter the brain's ability to process and store information.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 23 October 2014
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Cognitive deficits, variations in brain function leading to difficulty completing cognitive tasks, come in a wide variety of types. They can be divided broadly into general and specific deficits, depending on whether they involve problems with overall functioning, as seen in mental retardation, or difficulties with particular types of cognitive tasks like language acquisition. Treatment for cognitive deficits varies, depending on their cause and severity, and can include medications, therapy, and supportive care.

There are a number of reasons why brain function can be altered. Some people have congenital cognitive deficits caused by variations in fetal development, genetic disorders, or brain damage incurred at birth. Other people develop deficits as a result of progressive neurological diseases, head injuries, and drug use. Sometimes, these deficits are iatrogenic in nature, caused by medical treatment. Some medications are known to have an impact on cognitive function, for example.

In the case of general cognitive deficits, patients experience an overall reduction in cognitive function. They have difficulty completing a range of tasks and may not be able to function independently. Neurological disorders, especially in an advanced stage, can cause this level of impairment, as can some congenital conditions. Children born with intellectual disabilities associated with conditions like Down Syndrome, for example, have general cognitive deficits. Some mental illnesses can also cause these types of deficits by interfering with brain function and in some cases, medications used to treat mental illness result in the development of problems with brain function.

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With specific deficits, people may function well in some areas, and not in others. Dyslexia, learning disabilities like ADHD, and auditory processing disorder are some selected examples of specific cognitive deficits. In these patients, overall brain function is as expected and the patient can complete a variety of cognitive tasks, but has difficulty with tasks requiring function in specific areas of the brain. These patients may be highly skilled at certain types of tasks and sometimes demonstrate a high facility for adaptation to compensate for their deficits.

When people go to the doctor with cognitive deficits, a thorough evaluation is conducted to document the extent of the issue and to learn more about the possible cause. This information can be used to develop a treatment plan. Adaptations for the patient are a common component of treatment, using things like adjustments to a student's curriculum designed to help the student learn. Sometimes medications can help, particularly with specific cognitive deficits, as can things like occupational therapy to help the patient develop life skills.

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