A neuropathologist fights diseases that target our brain and central nervous system. It's a hybrid field of medicine that also combines neurology, the study of the nervous system, with pathology, which is the study of tissues. When someone shows symptoms of potential nerve conditions, such as weakness, pain, seizures or mental problems, a neurologist may be able to find the cause with a CT scan, which is a scan using computerized tomography, and other similar technology. In other instances, the only way to identify a problem is by studying tissue samples. That's when a neuropathologist steps in.
A Neuropathologist's Job
A neuropathologist specializes in diagnosing diseases of the nervous system. Some doctors in the field are even more specialized, focusing on an area such as the spinal column or the brain. Being specialists, neuropathologists often don't see patients every day. They go into action when another doctor's diagnosis says "get a neuropathologist in on this one."
A case may begin with a general medical exam and a discussion of symptoms with the patient, or with a tissue sample sent by another doctor. Neuropathologists don't restrict themselves to nerve tissue; depending on the case, they may study cells from a tumor, an eye, muscles or organ surfaces. These specialists don't work alone. Usually they're in consultation with the doctor who asked them to work on the case. If surgery becomes necessary, they'll talk with the surgeon.
The neuropathologist's mission is to identify the medical problem and help map out a cure. They typically deal with a wide range of pathologies and illnesses during the work week. Common diseases they deal with include:
- Cancer, particularly brain cancer.
- Degenerative neural disorders such as ALS.
- Parkinson's disease.
- Alzheimer's disease.
- Traumatic brain and spine injuries.
- Glandular problems.
- Eye problems. A neuropathologist might be called in when the patient wants to know "Will eye strain go away?" and their doctor doesn't see an obvious answer.
- Movement dysfunctions.
- Inflammation in the nervous system.
A forensic neuropathologist is even more specialized. They conduct autopsies to determine what killed the victim. Research neuropathologists use tissue samples to understand disease and how to treat it, but not focusing on specific patients.
Becoming a Neuropathologist
To become a neuropathologist, you have to become a doctor. Like anyone who aspires to an M.D., you go through four years of undergraduate work in a college or university, attaining good grades and taking plenty of biological, pre-med and other science courses. Volunteering at local clinics or hospitals for hands-on experience doesn't hurt. If your grades, your letters of recommendation and your score on the Medical College Admissions Test are stellar, you may be able to find a slot in medical school.
Over the course of the first two years in medical school you'll learn the basics of medicine, medical ethics and laws that pertain to the practice of medicine. During the last two years, you rotate through several courses, such as internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology, surgery, psychiatry, emergency medicine, and ambulatory medicine, under the supervision of experienced doctors. This way, you gain exposure to a broad variety of specialties. After you graduate, you become a resident in neuropathology for three to seven years. Then you take your licensing exam and become a full-fledged licensed doctor.
A neuropathologist needs more than knowledge of their field to succeed. Successful professional work requires attention to detail, clear thinking, reliability and the ability to communicate clearly with doctors and patients. If the case initially defies diagnosis, a neuropathologist has to have the persistence to keep working until the answer emerges.
Where You Might Work
Neuropathologists usually work in laboratory settings within hospitals, research institutions, or medical universities. They can also work as teachers in medical schools. Forensic neuropathologists work at morgues or coroner's offices.
Money and Potential
Job prospects for doctors in the U.S. continue to look good. Almost all medical school graduates find a residency. With the senior population growing, at time of writing, seniors are facing the prospect of being diagnosed with possibly having a nervous-system disease that comes with age, so the need for neuropathologists should remain strong.
The median wage for physicians and surgeons is more than $200,000 a year.