How Do Doctors Measure Cognitive Function?

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  • Written By: T. Carrier
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2018
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Evaluation of cognitive function is vital in understanding and treating a variety of physical and psychological illnesses. In general, written or orally administered tests are used to measure various aspects of an individual’s brain function. These exams may be general intelligence tests or measures specifically designed to test cognitive function like the Level of Cognitive Functioning Scale. During cognitive measurements, factors such as memory, attention span, and level of consciousness are considered.

An altered state of cognitive function — or rational thought and brain function — is a key indicator of mental illness or physical brain injury in many regions. In the United States, for example, a number of mental disorders are listed with cognitive dysfunction as a symptom in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. Further, various physical injuries such as brain trauma or brain diseases like dementia can impair an individual’s mind. Familiarity with the normal workings of the brain and mind is essential in detecting any potential abnormalities.

Evaluation scales called mental status examinations are perhaps the most common type of function test. These tests usually consist of a series of questions that the medical professional asks the patient. Questions may measure awareness, memory, problem-solving, or other aspects of mental and cognitive health. The patient may also be asked to perform certain tasks that will evaluate fine motor skills, analytical abilities, or other similar features.


These questions may be grouped into categories like the aforementioned. Groupings can help determine if problems are limited to certain cognitive areas or if the dysfunction affects the whole spectrum of brain activity and thought. Patients are usually graded on a numerical scale for each question. All answers are then combined to provide an individual’s placement along a spectrum from high to low cognitive function. The Level of Cognitive Functioning Scale is one such test example.

Medical professionals may also use general intelligence tests to gain a broad understanding of potential cognitive dysfunction, as these tests measure many of the same variables as tests designed specifically for declining cognition. Using these test types would require a comparison between scores on an old test with scores on the newer test. Possible other result influences like natural age-related cognitive decline should be taken into consideration when evaluating the results.

Chemical tests may provide further insight into cognitive functioning. Vitamins, stress hormones, and secretions of the thyroid gland can all impact mental awareness. Testing of such substances may therefore be of benefit. Many physical diseases can affect these chemical levels.

When an individual demonstrates signs of potential cognitive dysfunction, he or she is usually referred to a neurologist, psychiatrist, or other specialist. Warning signs include the following: memory loss, diminished analytical or problem-solving capabilities, radical personality changes, speech difficulties, and decreased awareness or alertness. Once an impairment has been determined, the next step is uncovering the source of the disturbances. Treatment protocols may thus run the range from nutritional supplements to behavioral therapy.


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