Testing Underway of Neurological, Behavioral Tools for NIH Toolbox 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010
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  • There is little uniformity among measures used to assess quality of life in patients with neurological disease, making it difficult to compare or compile data across studies.
  • The NIH Toolbox will be a comprehensive set of measures for assessing cognition, emotion, sensation and motor functions, with an emphasis on those measures useful for studying epidemiology, prevention and long-term intervention.
  • Investigators are beginning to establish normative data for the 48 tools in the Toolbox, by testing them in people from age 3 to 85.

The developers of the NIH Toolbox for the Assessment of Neurological and Behavioral Function have reached an important milestone in their effort to build a set of brief but comprehensive tests for use in large-scale studies. After an exhaustive evaluation of nearly 1,400 existing tests, they developed 48 tools that quickly and effectively measure motor, cognitive, sensory and emotional function. The NIH Toolbox now moves to the next critical stage of development: establishing normative data for these tests in a sampling of the general population.

Projected to be completed in late 2011, the Toolbox will bring some much needed standardization to the measures used in biomedical research, said Lead Project Officer Molly Wagster, Ph.D., of the National Institute on Aging, Division of Neuroscience.

“The research community expressed a need for uniform and well-validated measures that will enable them to share, compare and combine research data, and the Toolbox will go a long way towards fulfilling those needs,” Wagster said. “In essence, it will establish a “common currency” of measures of neurological and behavioral function that can be used across diverse study designs and populations.”

Richard Gershon, Ph.D., of Northwestern University, Chicago, leads the team of more than 250 scientists from academia, the National Institutes of Health and other organizations developing the Toolbox under the auspices of the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, a coalition formed in 2004 to develop new tools, resources, training opportunities and initiatives to accelerate the pace of discovery in neuroscience research.

“We are well on our way to building a Toolbox of cost-effective and easy-to-administer instruments to use when measuring the cognitive and emotional health of people aged 3 to 85 involved in large-scale studies,” Gershon said. “We’ve selected—and in many cases, devised---instruments that are easy to administer, score and interpret.”

During the norming stage, the instruments will be tested on children and adults, in both English speakers and Spanish speakers.

“We want to ensure the measures are easily understandable to participants with low literacy and of diverse ethnic origins,” Gershon said.

The entire Toolbox will take only two hours to administer but will measure a wide range of function, from working memory to perceived stress to physical strength. Primarily administered using a laptop, some tests will require additional off-the shelf equipment, such as a device that measures grip strength.

While the Toolbox measures are being normed for American study participants, the instruments will be made available to the worldwide research community conducting longitudinal, epidemiological and prevention or intervention trials.

“The entire range of Toolbox instruments, scoring algorithms and norms will be available on-line and free of charge. Additionally, we designed it to be flexible enough to adapt over time to changes in science and technology”, Gershon said.

To learn more about the NIH Toolbox and to comment on the project, go to http://www.nihtoolbox.org.

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