Nervous System Disorders

Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders occur when the development of the nervous system is disturbed. There are several different classes of neurodevelopmental disorders. Some, like Down Syndrome, cause intellectual deficits. Others specifically affect communication, learning, or the motor system. Some disorders like autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder have complex symptoms.


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Its severity differs from person to person. Estimates for the prevalence of the disorder have changed rapidly in the past few decades. Current estimates suggest that one in 88 children will develop the disorder. ASD is four times more prevalent in males than females.

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This video discusses possible reasons why there has been a recent increase in the number of people diagnosed with autism.

A characteristic symptom of ASD is impaired social skills. Children with autism may have difficulty making and maintaining eye contact and reading social cues. They also may have problems feeling empathy for others. Other symptoms of ASD include repetitive motor behaviors (such as rocking back and forth), preoccupation with specific subjects, strict adherence to certain rituals, and unusual language use. Up to 30 percent of patients with ASD develop epilepsy, and patients with some forms of the disorder (like Fragile X) also have intellectual disability. Because it is a spectrum disorder, other ASD patients are very functional and have good-to-excellent language skills. Many of these patients do not feel that they suffer from a disorder and instead think that their brains just process information differently.

Except for some well-characterized, clearly genetic forms of autism (like Fragile X and Rett’s Syndrome), the causes of ASD are largely unknown. Variants of several genes correlate with the presence of ASD, but for any given patient, many different mutations in different genes may be required for the disease to develop. At a general level, ASD is thought to be a disease of “incorrect” wiring. Accordingly, brains of some ASD patients lack the same level of synaptic pruning that occurs in non-affected people. In the 1990s, a research paper linked autism to a common vaccine given to children. This paper was retracted when it was discovered that the author falsified data, and follow-up studies showed no connection between vaccines and autism.

Treatment for autism usually combines behavioral therapies and interventions, along with medications to treat other disorders common to people with autism (depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder). Although early interventions can help mitigate the effects of the disease, there is currently no cure for ASD.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Approximately three to five percent of children and adults are affected by attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Like ASD, ADHD is more prevalent in males than females. Symptoms of the disorder include inattention (lack of focus), executive functioning difficulties, impulsivity, and hyperactivity beyond what is characteristic of the normal developmental stage. Some patients do not have the hyperactive component of symptoms and are diagnosed with a subtype of ADHD: attention deficit disorder (ADD). Many people with ADHD also show comorbitity, in that they develop secondary disorders in addition to ADHD. Examples include depression or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Figure provides some statistics concerning comorbidity with ADHD.

The cause of ADHD is unknown, although research points to a delay and dysfunction in the development of the prefrontal cortex and disturbances in neurotransmission. According to studies of twins, the disorder has a strong genetic component. There are several candidate genes that may contribute to the disorder, but no definitive links have been discovered. Environmental factors, including exposure to certain pesticides, may also contribute to the development of ADHD in some patients. Treatment for ADHD often involves behavioral therapies and the prescription of stimulant medications, which paradoxically cause a calming effect in these patients.

Bar graph shows that 49% of ADHD patients suffer from ADHD alone. Seven percent have both ADHD and conduct disorder. Eleven percent have ADHD and depression. Eleven percent have ADHD and anxiety disorder. Twenty-four percent have ADHD and a combination of depression, anxiety disorder, and conduct disorder.
Many people with ADHD have one or more other neurological disorders. (credit “chart design and illustration”: modification of work by Leigh Coriale; credit “data”: Drs. Biederman and Faraone, Massachusetts General Hospital).

Career Connection

Neurologist Neurologists are physicians who specialize in disorders of the nervous system. They diagnose and treat disorders such as epilepsy, stroke, dementia, nervous system injuries, Parkinson’s disease, sleep disorders, and multiple sclerosis. Neurologists are medical doctors who have attended college, medical school, and completed three to four years of neurology residency.

When examining a new patient, a neurologist takes a full medical history and performs a complete physical exam. The physical exam contains specific tasks that are used to determine what areas of the brain, spinal cord, or peripheral nervous system may be damaged. For example, to check whether the hypoglossal nerve is functioning correctly, the neurologist will ask the patient to move his or her tongue in different ways. If the patient does not have full control over tongue movements, then the hypoglossal nerve may be damaged or there may be a lesion in the brainstem where the cell bodies of these neurons reside (or there could be damage to the tongue muscle itself).

Neurologists have other tools besides a physical exam they can use to diagnose particular problems in the nervous system. If the patient has had a seizure, for example, the neurologist can use electroencephalography (EEG), which involves taping electrodes to the scalp to record brain activity, to try to determine which brain regions are involved in the seizure. In suspected stroke patients, a neurologist can use a computerized tomography (CT) scan, which is a type of X-ray, to look for bleeding in the brain or a possible brain tumor. To treat patients with neurological problems, neurologists can prescribe medications or refer the patient to a neurosurgeon for surgery.

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This website allows you to see the different tests a neurologist might use to see what regions of the nervous system may be damaged in a patient.

Mental Illnesses

Mental illnesses are nervous system disorders that result in problems with thinking, mood, or relating with other people. These disorders are severe enough to affect a person’s quality of life and often make it difficult for people to perform the routine tasks of daily living. Debilitating mental disorders plague approximately 12.5 million Americans (about 1 in 17 people) at an annual cost of more than $300 billion. There are several types of mental disorders including schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and phobias, post-traumatic stress disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), among others. The American Psychiatric Association publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM), which describes the symptoms required for a patient to be diagnosed with a particular mental disorder. Each newly released version of the DSM contains different symptoms and classifications as scientists learn more about these disorders, their causes, and how they relate to each other. A more detailed discussion of two mental illnesses—schizophrenia and major depression—is given below.


Schizophrenia is a serious and often debilitating mental illness affecting one percent of people in the United States. Symptoms of the disease include the inability to differentiate between reality and imagination, inappropriate and unregulated emotional responses, difficulty thinking, and problems with social situations. People with schizophrenia can suffer from hallucinations and hear voices; they may also suffer from delusions. Patients also have so-called “negative” symptoms like a flattened emotional state, loss of pleasure, and loss of basic drives. Many schizophrenic patients are diagnosed in their late adolescence or early 20s. The development of schizophrenia is thought to involve malfunctioning dopaminergic neurons and may also involve problems with glutamate signaling. Treatment for the disease usually requires antipsychotic medications that work by blocking dopamine receptors and decreasing dopamine neurotransmission in the brain. This decrease in dopamine can cause Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms in some patients. While some classes of antipsychotics can be quite effective at treating the disease, they are not a cure, and most patients must remain medicated for the rest of their lives.


Major depression affects approximately 6.7 percent of the adults in the United States each year and is one of the most common mental disorders. To be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, a person must have experienced a severely depressed mood lasting longer than two weeks along with other symptoms including a loss of enjoyment in activities that were previously enjoyed, changes in appetite and sleep schedules, difficulty concentrating, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal thoughts. The exact causes of major depression are unknown and likely include both genetic and environmental risk factors. Some research supports the “classic monoamine hypothesis,” which suggests that depression is caused by a decrease in norepinephrine and serotonin neurotransmission. One argument against this hypothesis is the fact that some antidepressant medications cause an increase in norepinephrine and serotonin release within a few hours of beginning treatment—but clinical results of these medications are not seen until weeks later. This has led to alternative hypotheses: for example, dopamine may also be decreased in depressed patients, or it may actually be an increase in norepinephrine and serotonin that causes the disease, and antidepressants force a feedback loop that decreases this release. Treatments for depression include psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy, deep-brain stimulation, and prescription medications. There are several classes of antidepressant medications that work through different mechanisms. For example, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAO inhibitors) block the enzyme that degrades many neurotransmitters (including dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine), resulting in increased neurotransmitter in the synaptic cleft. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) block the reuptake of serotonin into the presynaptic neuron. This blockage results in an increase in serotonin in the synaptic cleft. Other types of drugs such as norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors and norepinephrine-serotonin reuptake inhibitors are also used to treat depression.