What is an Organic Mental Disorder?

Find out what sets these disorders apart from a mental illness.

A woman with dementia at a day facility for the elderly.
A woman with dementia at a day facility for the elderly. Carsten Koall/Getty Images

An organic mental disorder is a dysfunction of the brain that may be permanent or temporary. It describes reduced brain function due to illnesses that are not psychiatric in nature. 

Sometimes the term organic mental disorder is used interchangeably with the terms organic brain syndrome (OBS), chronic organic brain syndrome, or neurocognitive disorder—this latter term is the one used more commonly now.

Causes of Organic Mental Disorders

Organic mental disorders are disturbances that may be caused by injury or disease affecting brain tissues as well as by chemical or hormonal abnormalities. Exposure to toxic materials, neurological impairment, or abnormal changes associated with aging can also cause these disorders. Alcohol or metabolic disorders, such as liver, kidney or thyroid disease or vitamin deficiencies, may be factors, too. 

Concussions, blood clots, or bleeding in or around the brain from trauma may lead to organic brain syndrome. Low oxygen in the blood, high amounts of carbon dioxide in the body, strokes, brain infections, and heart infections can lead to an organic mental disorder as well.

Degenerative disorders like Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, Huntington disease, and multiple sclerosis may also be contributing factors. 

Symptoms of Organic Mental Disorders

The symptoms of organic mental disorders include confusion, agitation, irritability, change in behavior, and impaired brain function, cognitive ability, or memory.

For example, a person with an organic mental disorder may have difficulty concentrating for a long period of time. Others may get confused while performing tasks that seem routine to others. Managing relationships and collaborating and communicating with colleagues, friends, or family may also prove difficult.

Overall, the severity of the symptoms and the type of symptoms a person has varies on the cause of their disorder.

If you or your loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms, it's important to seek medical care as soon as possible. A serious medical problem may have caused these symptoms to surface, and early intervention may be key.

Diagnosing and Treating Organic Mental Disorders

Blood tests, spinal taps, or an electroencephalogram may be administered to diagnose organic brain syndrome or an organic mental disorder. Imaging of the brain, like a CT scan or MRI, is also useful, depending on a doctor's suspicion.

Treatments for organic mental disorders vary on what the underlying cause is. Medication may be prescribed or rehabilitation therapy may help patients recover function in the parts of the brain affected by the organic mental disorder. 

Complications of Organic Mental Disorders or OBS

While some organic mental disorders may only be temporary, others often get worse with time. Disorders that don't respond to treatment may lead the patient to lose the ability to function independently or to interact with others.

In short, the chance of recovery or the outlook of a person's disorder depends on a number of factors, mostly what the cause is behind their impaired brain function. While the diagnosis of an organic mental disorder (or neurocognitive disorder, as it is now referred to) can be frightening, you are not alone, and there are ample resources available to help you or your loved one. 

Sources:

NIH U.S. National Library of Medicine. Neurocognitive Disorder.

Social Security Disability Benefits Help. (2017). Organic Mental Disorders and Social Security Disability. 

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