Physical Disorders of the Brain: Effects, Types & Psychological Treatments

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

The human brain is a complicated organ, and a variety of disorders may arise when it doesn't function properly. These disorders may be relatively simple to treat, or they may even be life-changing or life-threatening.

The Brain: Function and Dysfunction

Human beings depend on their brains for most of the functions in their daily lives. Our magnificent brain is responsible for several processes from mental processes, like thinking and feeling, to involuntary processes, like breathing. The field of neurology, or the study of the brain, spine and central nervous system, is where we'll find discussion of physical disorders of the brain. However, before we dive into these disorders of the brain, let's quickly look at the physical structure of the brain.

There are entire texts written about the parts of the brain but we can condense it into three basic areas. The brain stem, which is connected directly to the spinal cord, influences involuntary muscle actions, such as heart rate and digestion. The cerebellum is the middle part of the human brain, and controls muscle coordination and things like posture. The cerebrum is the front (or top) of the human brain, and controls reasoning, speech, and processing information. Now that we know a little about the brain and its function, let's look at some physical disorders that can affect the brain.


When the brain's structure is abnormal through damage, disease, or genetic issues, the normal functions of the brain can become more difficult or impossible. These disorders of the brain can manifest themselves at different times, depending on the type of problem. Some diseases manifest later in life due to years of buildup in the brain of problems that disrupt normal functions. For instance, in Alzheimer's disease, plaques build up in the brain that are thought to play a role in disrupting normal brain cells. These plaques take time to build up and cause impairment, so symptoms don't occur until damage has accumulated. Cancer or tumors can manifest at different times, depending on whether it is genetic or caused by environmental factors. Finally, a congenital defect occurs when someone is born with abnormalities in their brain or genes. Let's take a look at some examples of each type of physical disorder of the brain like brain injuries, cancer and autism.

Traumatic Brain Injuries

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are generally due to accidents, such as automobile crashes, falls, or other trauma to the head. The effects of physical damage to the brain depend on where the damage takes place. For example, a TBI could affect speech, muscle control and mental reason, as well as personality.

The most famous case of brain injury is that of Phineas Gage. In 1848, Gage was injured in a blasting accident in Vermont when iron bar was hurled straight through Gage's skull, leaving a hole in his left cerebrum. This trauma caused some paralysis of the left side of Gage's face, but also affected his personality. According to his doctor, Gage had problems with impulse control and came to use coarse language and mannerisms.

Phineas Gage suffered a penetrating head wound when an explosion sent an iron bar (shown here) through his skull.

Brain Cancer

Cancers, like physical trauma, have different effects depending on the diseased portion of the brain. They may cause symptoms such as seizures, memory loss, or a variety of psychological symptoms like hallucinations. Unlike physical trauma, cancer is not always obvious when it begins. While a hole in the skull is a fairly obvious symptom, cancers aren't generally that obvious and may only provide subtle clues. For example, while a physical injury is expected to get better over time (barring infection or other complications) cancers can grow and spread over time. Most types of brain cancer can be fatal if not treated soon enough.


Autism is a developmental disability that affects 1 in 68 children in the United States. The symptoms of autism are not generally recognizable until the child is two or three years old. Many people are diagnosed on the Autism spectrum, which describes the varying degrees of functionality an autistic person may possess. People with autism process sensory information differently. They can become overwhelmed with sensory stimuli, or have social communication and language disabilities. Because of this, they have difficulty learning routine tasks and problems communicating verbally. Scientists are not currently certain of the causes of autism, but the current explanation for the condition is a congenital issue at an earlier stage of development.

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