Intelligence and Neurological Conditions

Intelligence is an interesting concept. We have tests that measure what we call intelligence but such tests are limited and culture-centric (not that that is necessarily a negative thing). However, for the sake of discussion I will operationally define aptitude (i.e., intelligence) as Intelligence Quotient so as to have a standard metric as foundation for this post.

I spend time assessing people’s memory and thinking abilities. I almost always try to get some measure of baseline aptitude either by estimating it (e.g., years of education, vocabulary knowledge, word reading ability) or by formally measuring via an intelligence test. Granted, this has limitations but it allows me to estimate how well an individual’s brain should function across multiple domains of thinking (e.g., problem-solving, reasoning, memory, language, and so forth). In other words, the higher a person’s general aptitude (abilities), the better he generally will do across most cognitive domains barring brain insult. This is certainly not a rule codified in stone and in triplicate but it serves as a rubric to follow.

Intelligence as measured by IQ is generally quite stable across the lifespan but can improve modestly with  diligence in informal or formal education. Intelligence as denoted by IQ can also decrease modestly if people are intellectually inactive, although such declines are slight. What can happen though is as brains age or if damaged by a pathological process or an injury, components of IQ can decrease. My primary clinical and research focus is in understanding how brains and cognition change in old age – both naturally and in the presence of neurological (brain) insult. Remarkably, the measures we use for intelligence tend to be rather insensitive to aging and even neurological insult, at least some of the components of intelligence are generally insensitive to brain insult. However, this leads to one area where our conceptualization of intelligence as IQ starts to break down.

As they age, the brains of people almost universally slow down. Wear and tear on the brain over decades of life affects how well and quickly we can think. Blood, which is essential for life and for the functioning of the brain, happens to be toxic to brain cells. Sometimes the protections in the brain that keep blood far enough from brain cells (neurons) to protect them but near enough to feed and maintain brain cells start to break down over time. This can injure the brain and start to reduce how well the brain works, even lowering IQ. Now, does that mean that a person’s intelligence decreases? If IQ = intelligence, then yes, it does. Contrary to how I operationalized intelligence earlier, intelligence is not synonymous with IQ. IQ can be a useful concept but it is far from perfect, particularly if by using it one argues that someone is less intelligent simply because his head was injured in an accident or because she developed dementia or suffered a stroke.

This is an area that demonstrates the limitations of our current research and clinical conceptualizations of intelligence. However, understanding how IQ changes over time and how it is affected by neurological conditions is important information to have, as it can help localize areas of pathology.

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