Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy: Cognitive Impairment

Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis

A person’s intellectual ability to think is called cognition. When the brain becomes damaged, cognitive impairment can occur, which may cause problems with thinking, judgment, memory, and language. Cerebral palsy effects on cognitive development are linked to damage to the brain. Not everyone with cerebral palsy experiences cognitive impairment, but approximately 30% to 50% do experience difficulty in processing or understanding information. The more severe the case of cerebral palsy, the more likely the person is to experience cognitive impairment.

What Is Cognitive Impairment?

The cognitive effects of cerebral palsy can range from severe to mild and include problems with concentrating, understanding, remembering, or making decisions. When cognitive impairment is severe, it may lead to a loss of comprehension of information, the inability to live independently, and an inaptitude for communication. Alternatively, mild cognitive impairment may result in some noticeable changes to memory or mental function, but it does not necessarily affect one’s ability to do regular everyday activities. A person who struggles with cognitive impairment often has other health or physical problems as well.

Symptoms of Cognitive Impairment

The symptoms of cognitive impairment may change with time and age. It’s possible for symptoms to remain consistent over a long period of time, progressively increase in number and severity or show improvement over time. Common symptoms include:

  • Memory loss and forgetfulness
  • Frequently losing your train of thought
  • Inability to follow conversations or stories
  • Feeling overwhelmed when making decisions
  • Not recognizing familiar places or people
  • Repetition of stories or questions
  • Struggling with following instructions
  • Trouble exercising judgment and impulse control
  • Behavioral or mood changes

Causes of Cognitive Impairment

Cognitive impairment is caused by a variety of situations that result in damage to the brain. Autopsies have identified one cause as abnormal clumping of various proteins. Brain imaging shows an association with shrinkage of the hippocampus region—the part of the brain responsible for forming new memories, learning, and emotions. Imaging also shows enlargement of brain ventricles—structures that produce cerebrospinal fluid and transport it all around the cranial cavity—or reduced use of glucose in key brain regions. Another cause may be a reduction in blood flow through brain vessels due to small strokes.

Since cerebral palsy is caused by abnormal brain development or injury to the brain, the traumatizing brain event that causes cerebral palsy may also be the cause of cognitive impairment. This could be due to premature birth, physical brain injury, or not getting enough oxygen, blood, or nutrients to the brain.

Diagnosing Cognitive Impairment

A doctor will diagnose cognitive impairment based on symptoms and a variety of different test results. There is no one specific test that can confirm cognitive impairment. A panel of international experts developed some basic criteria for determining a diagnosis, which includes:

  • Problems with memory or mental function
  • A decline in mental ability over time
  • How overall mental function affects daily activities
  • Neuropsychological testing to determine the degree of impairment
  • Symptoms that aren’t severe enough to be dementia or Alzheimer’s
  • Blood tests to rule out physical problems that affect memory
  • Brain imaging, such as an MRI or CT scan, to check for a brain tumor or stroke

Treatment of Cognitive Impairment

There are currently no approved treatments for cognitive impairment. Sometimes doctors will prescribe treatments for similar conditions, such as cholinesterase inhibitors, which are approved for Alzheimer’s disease patients. Other common conditions related to forgetfulness can be treated by a doctor, however, which may improve mental function. Examples of treatable conditions include high blood pressure, depression, and sleep apnea.

Lifestyle Changes for Cognitive Impairment

There are mixed results from studies about whether exercise, diet, healthy lifestyle choices, and alternative medicines have any real impact on cerebral palsy and cognition. Generally speaking, promoting good overall health often plays a positive role in good cognitive health. This includes:

  • Regular physical exercise for heart health
  • A healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids
  • Intellectual stimulation to preserve mental function
  • Social engagement for a more satisfying life
  • Memory and cognitive training to improve function
  • Supplements such as B12, vitamin E, ginkgo, and others

In the United States, cognitive impairment is the third most expensive medical treatment, and people with cognitive impairment are three times as likely to end up in the hospital. Improving conditions for people living with cognitive impairment, and for their families, is an important task. Ways to do this include expanding research, increasing home and community-based services, and providing more training for healthcare and human services workers.

Although research is growing and treatments continue to advance, cerebral palsy and cognitive impairment can have a huge financial and emotional impact on individuals and their families. If you think it’s possible that your child’s cerebral palsy is the result of medical malpractice, you may be eligible for compensation. The Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs, LLC are here to support you through this difficult time. Contact us today to learn more about your legal options.



Claire Surles, RN
Reviewed by:
Claire Surles, RN
Registered Nurse

Claire comes to JJS after a 10-year career as a labor and delivery nurse. She dedicated her hospital efforts to advocating for families, providing the safest birthing environment possible as Newborn Admission Nurse at UMMC St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Maryland. Her passion for helping those who experienced losses at any stage of gestation led to her appointment as Coordinator of the hospital’s ROOTS perinatal loss program. READ FULL BIO

Was Your Child's CP Preventable?