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February 12, 2016
New NIH Toolbox App Captures Reliable Research Data

Data. It reveals health trends. It uncovers associations between risk factors and disease and helps develop interventions for preventing and treating various conditions. Our reliance on data is at the heart of research. But capturing data can be challenging.

Imagine collecting an entire battery of measurements—a whole world of research e-data—using tried and true metrics. That capability exists and it’s literally just a click away.

The NIH Toolbox is a set of brief, psychometrically sound measures for researchers and clinicians assessing motor, emotional, sensory and cognitive function in people ages 3 to 85. It provides 104 well-validated measures, across 52 domains, along with normative data in English and Spanish. What’s even better? Individual instruments are typically administered in 1-7 minutes and all 4 batteries can be administered in as little as 2 hours.

The NIH Toolbox has now upgraded its accessibility by introducing an iPad version available to researchers and clinicians through an app in the iTunes App Store.
The NIH Toolbox has now upgraded its accessibility by introducing an iPad version available to researchers and clinicians through an app in the iTunes App Store.


“The NIH Toolbox provides a ‘common currency’ for neurological research,” says Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging. “Our intent was not only to provide a resource for scientists, but also to encourage its use to enhance comparability across studies. The NIH Toolbox is one important way to help maximize the NIH investment in research on the neurological and behavioral influences on health and longevity.”

The toolbox is proving to be a go-to assessment for researchers nationwide. It was rolled out in 2012—by more than 250 contributing scientists from 80 institutions—with funding from the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research and NIH’s Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. Over the past few years, the team at Northwestern University, which developed and maintains the toolbox with funding from NIH, has built a robust web site that includes videos and how-to presentations.

“The NIH Toolbox enables economies of scale and enhances efficiency,” notes Dr. Richard Gershon, principal investigator and professor and vice chair for research at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, department of medical social sciences. “It is capable of monitoring neurological and behavioral function over time and measuring key constructs across developmental stages.”

Even if you’ve used the NIH Toolbox in the past, there are some new bells and whistles you’ll want to know about.

It’s gone mobile. Just this summer, the development team at Northwestern introduced an iPad version and measures are now available to researchers and clinicians through an app in the iTunes App Store. You’ll need Wi-Fi capacity for initial installation of the app, but you won’t need an Internet connection to use it, allowing more ways and places to use the toolbox than before. In order to maintain the integrity of the cognitive measures and ensure they are not accessible for practice or misuse, special permission is required for access to the cognitive battery.

To date, the resource has been used in more than 600 studies. It includes measures that may be of particular interest to researchers and clinicians in the fields of aging and child development. The toolbox has been used among a variety of study populations such as the NIH Human Connectome Project.

“The NIH Toolbox allows researchers to assess function using common metrics and makes it possible to support the pooling and sharing of large data sets,” notes Dr. Molly Wagster, NIH lead project officer for development of the NIH Toolbox.

How can it work for you? With the resource, you can measure multiple cognitive domains—including speed of processing, executive function and episodic memory—and generate composite scores. The NIH Toolbox can also be used to assess more than 20 subdomains of emotional function in one minute or less each. Self-report data may be collected on emotional constructs such as self-efficacy, perceived stress, meaning and purpose and emotional support. It allows you to analyze balance data in real time using an iPod in conjunction with the iPad. Other motor battery tests measure dexterity, grip strength, gait speed and endurance. You can also quickly and validly assess audition, visual acuity, vestibular balance, olfaction, taste and pain with the toolbox.

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