yes, therapy helps!
Cognitive disorders: what they are and what are their types

Cognitive disorders: what they are and what are their types

April 23, 2024

The human mind can fail in different ways, and those alterations that affect cognition are especially serious.

In this article we will explain what is a cognitive disorder , which refers to an impairment of our normal brain function. We will also see a section to understand what cognitive functions are, we will understand why these are so important when explaining the topic of the article and we will add a classification of the main types of cognitive disorders.

  • Related article: "The 15 most frequent neurological disorders"

What is a cognitive disorder?

A cognitive disorder is a type of mental disorder that centrally affects our cognitive abilities , those that enable us to carry out the tasks we need to perform in our day to day. It is an alteration that affects the mind at different levels related to forecasting, planning and finding solutions to problems.

Cognitive mental disorder is considered to be a psychological disorder that is caused by some problem in the normal functioning of basic cognitive functions. The alterations in these basic cognitive functions generate problems in other more complex cognitive functions, as we will see next.

Cognitive functions

To better understand the alterations or dysfunctions that occur in cognitive disorder, it is appropriate to recognize the cognitive functions that may be involved. These are all those mental processes that enable us to perform tasks .

Next we will review the main basic brain functions and the main complex brain functions that are involved in a cognitive disorder.

Basic or primary cognitive functions

For our survival we have had to learn to perceive, select, process, manage and work on relevant information. The basic functions allow us

1. Attention

This function allows the person to focus on the relevant information in a specific context or problem to be solved. The stimuli that occur around us are infinite, and processing all available information is impossible and useless.

2. Perception

It is through our senses that information reaches us. Perception is the function that works internal and external stimuli, that is, the one that channels and makes us aware of all kinds of information that occurs in our body and in our environment .

3. Memory

This function allows you to organize the information that has been processed and learned. There are many types of memory , but we can say in general that the memory orders, files and retrieves all kinds of data so that we can work with it.

  • You may be interested: "Types of memory: how does memory store the human brain?"

4. Reasoning

It is the logical responsible function, with implications in executive functions as important as the ability to solve problems or language

Complex or superior cognitive functions

From the previous basic functions derive other more complex than relate different areas of the brain to achieve . Next we see the most remarkable.

1. Orientation

The orientation has different axes of reference, because it is a cognitive function that takes into account space, time , the relationship with oneself and the relationship with others.

2. Language

Language is the competence that allows an individual interpret logical and symbolic systems .


They are those capabilities related to efficient organization, planning and execution. This neurological process is what allows to perform physical actions of all kinds , how to know how to dress or draw.

4. Executive functions

In case of having damaged executive functions there are great disturbances in the intentionality of the people , since this function supervises all cognitive functions of lower levels like the previous ones.

  • Related article: "The 11 executive functions of the human brain"

5. Problem-solving ability

In reality it is a set of intelligences or capabilities that allow solving complex problems of all kinds.

Types of cognitive disorders

Cognitive functions they are essential to be able to lead a life without dysfunctions at the time of performing day-to-day tasks.

Thus, after seeing the main primary and secondary cognitive functions, it will be much easier for us to understand the different types of cognitive disorder that we are going to present next.

1. Direct cognitive disorders

We classify as direct cognitive disorders those that by their nature have a direct impact on the cognitive functions that we have explained previously.


Amnesia is a term that refers to the partial or complete loss of memory. It affects this basic brain function very specifically, preventing the individual from recovering or retaining information that he had already stored in his brain.

These processes of managing this information are given through complex brain mechanisms such as coding, storage and evocation.

  • You may be interested: "The different types of amnesia (and their characteristics)"


When cognitive deficits occur as in dementia, any of the brain functions may be affected. Highlights the impact of dementia in memory, language, attention, control or inhibition of behavior , praxies and executive functions or problem solving capacity.

Delirium or acute confusional syndrome

It deals with all those organic disorders, that is, caused by a loss or abnormality of the structure, the function of the brain tissue, or both affectations at the same time.

In this affectation alterations can occur at the level of consciousness, and complex cognitive functions it is characterized for being acute and with very global affectations , but it is also reversible.

For example, if delirium occurs due to a brain tumor that presses the brain tissue and it is successfully removed without damaging the structure, the person returns to his normal state.

2. Anxiety disorders

In anxiety disorders there is a fear of a future threat. Our mind gives as an anticipatory response an emotional disturbance , which can even lead to physical symptoms such as tachycardia or tremors.

Behaviors are generally avoidant, and can occur in a continuous or episodic way. There is a good variety of them affecting our normal cognitive activity. Next we will see the most representative.


Phobia is a psychological disorder characterized by a very intense and unjustified fear of animals, objects or concrete situations.

They are a type of disorder that can lead to experiences of extreme anxiety or panic to the person who suffers. There are different of them, and depending on what the object of fear is , the person's life can be more or less affected.

For example, people who suffer from social phobia can be seriously affected their normal way of functioning in social situations such as parties or events.

Generalized anxiety disorder

In this type of disorder the worry and generalized anxiety for any daily event is very common. The people who suffer it they are constantly worried if things go wrong .

The restlessness, the difficulty to concentrate, the muscular tension, the sleep disturbances, the irritability and the fatigue are habitual manifestations that are associated with this disorder. Like the other cognitive disorders, cognitive functions are subordinated to the mental state of the sufferer.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Extreme events that could have been lived can trigger post-traumatic stress. A war, a rape, a hurricane, an attack or a serious accident on the road can lead to this type of mental affectation.

This disorder makes the person feel stressed and afraid to relive what has happened . Appear memories of the lived and difficulty to sleep, feelings of loneliness and guilt, worry or sadness, and even explosions of anger, affecting the individual but also to those around him.

4. Psychotic disorders

These types of disorders cause abnormal ideas and perceptions, causing the person to lose touch with reality. Delusions and hallucinations are the main symptoms .

Delusions are nothing more than false beliefs that maximize their impact on personal life, because for example that the neighborhood is against them or that in the newspaper someone sends secret messages. Hallucinations are false perceptions of reality, the person seems to hear, feel or see something that does not exist.


Schizophrenia is a type of psychotic disorder characterized by the loss of the judgment of reality accompanied by a great disorganization of the personality .

In the schizophrenia appear positive symptoms and negative symptoms. The first include delusions, hallucinations and disorders of thought, while the negative affect the lack of motivation, emotion or alteration of this, and difficulties in speech.

In addition, in this cognitive disorder problems of neurocognitive capacity decrease appear. The basic functions such as memory, attention, problem solving or social control are seriously affected.

  • Related article: "What is schizophrenia? Symptoms and treatments"

Delirious disorders or paranoid psychosis

This psychotic disorder is characterized by the delirious ideas that the person has . These are not as strange as in other disorders in case there is no other remarkable psychopathology.

People who suffer from it do not meet the criteria for schizophrenia and lacks hallucinations, or at least notoriously, because some may appear related to the subject of delirium.

Who suffers delusional disorder enjoys a sufficiently functional life , only shows a strange behavior on issues directly related to the delusion. Unfortunately, the patient's life can be increasingly affected by the weight and influence of their beliefs in other parts of their mental life.

3. Mood disorders

These cognitive disorders greatly affect the person who suffers from not being able to carry out a normal life when they see their very upset mood. Depression and bipolar disorder are presented as the most representative disorders of this type of disorders.


Depression in a mental illness that is characterized by a very acute alteration of the state where the pathological sadness is the main symptom. This feeling is more intense and lasting than what we would understand as normal, and it can cause great anxiety . All together can appear without a just cause.

It is a cognitive disorder because it produces a decrease in the ability to concentrate and think, and can promote ideas as negative as suicide. It can also generate isolation, agitation, lack of communication and even aggressive behavior (about oneself or others).

Bipolar disorder

This disease is characterized by passing of episodes with euphoric state to episodes with depressive state . The events of the patient's life are not the cause of these behavioral changes.

Those who suffer from bipolar disorder can also have psychotic symptoms, having more or less severe degrees. The most severe degrees of euphoria and depression can happen with great rapidity and intensity, with which the individual has great difficulties to carry out a normal life.

Bibliographic references:

  • Butcher, J.N, Mineka, S. and Hooley, J.M. (2007). Clinical Psychology (12th Ed.). Madrid: Pearson.
  • Castelfranchi C., Mancini F. and Miceli M. (2002). Fondamenti di cognitivismo clinico. Turin: Bollati Boringhieri.
  • Simpson, J.R. (2014). DSM-5 and neurocognitive disorders. J. Am. Acad. Psychiatry Law, 42 (2), 159-64.
  • Guerrero, A. (2008). Problem-Based Behavioral Science of Medicine. New York: Springer. 367-79.
  • Sarason, I.G. and Sarason, B.R. (2006). Abnormal psychology: the problem of maladaptive behavior (11th Ed.). Madrid: Prentice-Hall.

Dr. Sarah Morrow talks about cognitive impairment in MS patients (April 2024).

Similar Articles