When President Trump slurred his words during a news conference this week, some Trump watchers speculated that he was having a stroke. I watched the clip and, as a physician who specializes in brain function and disability, I don’t think a stroke was behind the slurred words. But having evaluated the chief executive’s remarkable behavior through my clinical lens for almost a year, I do believe he is displaying signs that could indicate a degenerative brain disorder.
As the president’s demeanor and unusual decisions raise the potential for military conflict in two regions of the world, the questions surrounding his mental competence have become urgent and demand investigation.
Until now, most of the focus has been on the president’s psychology. It’s now time to think of the president’s neurology — and the possibility of an organic brain disorder.
Every day of my working life, I evaluate people with brain injuries. It falls to me to make decisions about what is normal and what is not, what can improve and what will not, whether or not my patients can work, what kind of work they can do, and pretty much everything else.
In turning my attention to the president, I see worrisome symptoms that fall into three main categories: problems with language and executive function; problems with social cognition and behavior; and problems with memory, attention, and concentration. None of these are symptoms of being a bad or mean person. Nor do they require spelunking into the depths of his psyche to understand. Instead, they raise concern for a neurocognitive disease process in the same sense that wheezing raises the alarm for asthma.
Here’s the evidence on which I base my conclusion that it would be prudent for the president to be tested for a brain disorder.
Language and executive dysfunction
Language is closely tied with cognition, and the president’s speech patterns are increasingly repetitive, fragmented, devoid of content, and restricted in vocabulary. Trump’s overuse of superlatives like tremendous, fantastic, and incredible are not merely elements of personal style. These filler words reflect reduced verbal fluency. Full transcripts of the president’s interviews with outlets like the New York Times and Time reveal the extent of his disorganized thought patterns.
The problem becomes especially apparent in the transcript format, where his thinking is no longer camouflaged by visual accompaniments to communication like facial expressions and gesticulations. Some outlets have sought to protect the president, forgiving his lapses by declining to publish full transcripts. When Politico published a leaked transcript of the Wall Street Journal’s July interview, we learned that the president’s intellectual curiosity rises to the level of introductory geography: “You call places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and you say, you know, how many people do you have? And it’s pretty amazing how many people they have.”
The president made that remark in response to a question about the ideal corporate tax rate, demonstrating the degree to which his thinking drifts. The problems with language expression extend to language interpretation, the likely source of the president’s gross misunderstanding of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s message to his city in the wake of a terror attack in June.
Dysfunction of social cognition and behavior
Some of the president’s most concerning behaviors suggest a decline in social cognition: reduced insight and awareness into the thoughts and motivations of other people, coupled with symptoms like impulsivity and disinhibition that make him behave rudely and create needless controversy.
The decision to fire FBI Director James Comey in the middle of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election is an example of an impulsive decision that was greatly damaging to the president himself, assuming he was not actually trying to cover up his own complicity in the matter under investigation. Contradicting his own communications staff by disclosing that the Russia investigation was one reason he fired Comey is an example of disinhibited behavior. Rashly threatening Comey with a recording he did not have is reflective of poor emotional control.
Trump’s easy Twitter trigger finger, most recently retweeting British far-right videos he apparently knew nothing about simply because the social media platform promoted these videos in his feed, reflects poor impulse control. Numerous problematic moments in the Trump presidency, such as his volunteering top secret Israeli intelligence to the Russian ambassador or volunteering that his immigration restrictions were indeed a “travel ban,” reflect an inability to contain himself.