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The differences between neurological and psychiatric disease

The differences between neurological and psychiatric disease

January 22, 2022

Often the terms "neurological disease" and "psychiatric illness" are used interchangeably , and there are even many experts who believe that there are no real differences between both types of disorder.

In this article we will describe the differences and similarities between neurological and psychiatric diseases.

What are neurological diseases?

Neurology is the branch of medicine that deals with the study of the anatomy, functions and organic alterations of the nervous system . This discipline is based largely on the contributions of neuroscience, which is defined as the study of the nervous system as a whole and is nourished by methods such as cellular analysis and neuroimaging.


When referring to neurological diseases, general reference is made to any type of disorder that involves the nervous system, regardless of its causes or symptoms. Therefore, it is a very broad term that can be used for phenomena as different as insomnia and Korsakoff syndrome.

There are many different types of neurological diseases. These can be classified according to different criteria; if we are guided by the location of the alterations, one of the most common, we find neurological disorders that affect the brain, the spinal cord, the cranial nerves, peripheral nerves or the autonomic nervous system.


Some illustrative examples of the alterations that are often categorized as neurological diseases are dementias and other neurodegenerative disorders, neuropathies, epilepsy or behavioral disorders caused by brain injuries, such as aphasia (which affects language) and apraxia (associated with the planning of movements).

The causes of neurological diseases are as varied as their manifestations . Among the most common are genetic alterations, nerve injuries from external causes, infections, vascular disorders and factors related to lifestyle such as malnutrition or excessive consumption of certain compounds.

Psychiatric illnesses or mental disorders

The concept "psychiatric illness" can be considered equivalent to "mental disorder" , which predominates in the field of psychology, with which psychiatry overlaps in a very significant (and often problematic) way. It is used to talk about alterations related to external behavior or what we know as "mind".


Psychiatry is the specialty of medicine that is responsible for the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of disorders or mental illness. Unlike psychology, it specializes specifically in pathology; in this sense it is very close to clinical psychology, although psychiatrists can prescribe pharmacological treatments.

This discipline has been even more questioned than psychology for its conception and management of mental problems. Critical perspectives with psychiatry deny the social labeling that derives from medical diagnoses, the rigidity of this type of procedure and the medicalization of non-pathological interindividual differences.

Psychiatric diseases may be due to both organic and environmental causes ; For example, traits such as neuroticism, which predispose to the development of anxiety disorders, are largely determined by genetic factors, although stress and other psychosocial variables (for example substance abuse) are also fundamental.

Among the so-called mental disorders we can highlight alterations such as schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, anorexia and bulimia nervosa, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementias and bipolar disorder. As we see, some of them can also be categorized as neurological diseases.

Differences and similarities between these types of alteration

In general, we tend to understand psychiatry and neurology as complementary sciences. Thus, both would share the interest in many disorders, although each of them would deal specifically with some and would make a different emphasis in the analysis of the manifestations of the alterations and in that of their neurophysiological correlates.

However, some people consider that the syndromes referred to as "psychiatric diseases" are simply neurological disorders whose anatomical and physiological features have not been fully identified at the moment. From this perspective, psychiatry would not be necessary but an example of the atavistic body-mind dualism.

David and Nicholson (2015) deny this idea and propose that the basic difference between neurology and psychiatry is that the second focuses on behaviors and mental contents such as thoughts, perceptions and emotions, while neurology deals with preferential form of the organic basis of the disorders.

In the same line, Baker et al. (2002) warned that neurology should be cautious, although it affirmed that psychiatry would also benefit from the knowledge obtained by the neurosciences. According to the authors, mental health can not be reduced to its neuroanatomical correlates ; Each of these sciences would therefore have its own area of ​​specialization.

Bibliographic references:

  • Baker, M. G., Kale, R. & Menken, M. (2002). The wall between neurology and psychiatry: Advances in neuroscience indicate it's time to tear it down. BMJ, 324 (7352): 1468-9.
  • David, A. S. & Nicholson, T. (2015). Are neurological and psychiatric disorders different? British Journal of Psychiatry, 207 (5): 373-4.

Autoimmune neurological disease research: Mayo Clinic Radio (January 2022).


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