The set of measures is useful for both researchers and clinicians alike—and can save money and time over traditional tools
For years, neurobehavioral researchers often couldn't compare data across studies or even within the same longitudinal study because they lacked a "common currency" for collecting data on various aspects of research participants' functioning.
"People used all sorts of different measures and assessments," says Molly V. Wagster, PhD, a psychologist who heads the behavioral and systems neuroscience branch in the National Institute on Aging's neuroscience division. And because there were different tests for different age groups, she says, "people had to resort to all sorts of different measures to follow someone over a period of time." Plus, she adds, researchers looking for quick-and-easy assessments sometimes resorted to tools designed for diagnosing disorders, not assessing function.
Now all that has changed, thanks to the National Institutes of Health's creation of the NIH Toolbox® for Assessment of Neurological and Behavioral Function. Developed by more than 250 scientists, many of them psychologists, the toolbox offers brief measures—some already existing and some created especially for the project—for assessing cognitive, emotional, sensory and motor functioning in research participants ages 3 to 85.
Introduced in 2012 and adapted for the iPad in 2015, the NIH Toolbox offers researchers a comprehensive set of tools for collecting data that can be compared across existing and future studies, says Wagster, the lead federal project officer for the toolbox.
The NIH Toolbox saves researchers time, says psychologist Richard C. Gershon, PhD, the NIH Toolbox's principal investigator and a professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "You can administer the equivalent of a one- or two-day neuropsych battery in two hours," says Gershon. The complete cognition battery can be administered in about 30 minutes.
The toolbox can also save money, says Gershon. Take the test used to assess people's sense of balance, which could be used to gauge older people's risk of falling. "Our test arguably replaces between $10,000 and $100,000 worth of equipment with a $160 iPad," he says.
Clinical psychologists could find the NIH Toolbox useful, too, says Abigail B. Sivan, PhD, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern, who helped develop it. In the future, a clinical psychologist might use the toolbox's assessments to help distinguish between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and anxiety, for example, or between Alzheimer's disease and normal age-related changes in memory, she says. Clinicians could also use the NIH Toolbox to track patients' progress over time, she says.
Available as an app at iTunes, the NIH Toolbox can be downloaded on up to 10 iPads for an annual subscription fee of $500. Users can try it out for free for 60 days.
For more information, visit www.nihtoolbox.org.
By Rebecca A. Clay
This article was originally published in the December 2016 Monitor on Psychology