UMass Medical School develops customizable neurobehavioral tests for children, adults with disabilities

July 27, 2015

UMass Medical School researchers have developed a computer-based battery of neurobehavioral tests designed to conduct informative evaluations of the cognitive capabilities of both children and adults, including those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

The Tests of Attention and Memory (TAM) battery has four modules that evaluate a broad range of cognitive functions. TAM is unique in allowing tests of neurobehavioral functioning across a very broad, continuous, highly selectable range of difficulty levels and materials.

“The typical neurobehavioral test takes a snapshot of a person’s capacity, but often what one really wants and needs is bigger sample of behavior over time – more like a movie,” said William McIlvane, PhD, the TAM project lead and director of academic development in UMass Medical School’s Commonwealth Medicine division.

Each TAM module has a continuously increasing range of selectable difficulty levels to assess the degree to which individuals can focus, sustain and shift attention, remember key information, and adjust their behavior in response to changing circumstances. Initial levels are suitable for young children. Later levels present progressively greater challenges. The highest levels challenge typical adults.

TAM tests also have selectable content, allowing evaluation of neurobehavioral functioning with a range of materials that include animals, objects, letters and numbers and abstract shapes.

“Not only does the TAM permit assessment of peoples’ best performances – a better measure of true capacity – but it also allows adjustment of difficulty levels – up or down – to measure cognitive improvement or decline,” McIlvane said. “This characteristic may also prove useful for improving neurobehavioral functioning by supporting programmed instruction in attention and memory skills.”

TAM enables researchers, clinicians and educators to conduct neurobehavioral tests in children and adults with IDD and/or limited language skills, including those with autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, traumatic brain injury, exposure to chemical or environmental pollutants, and other conditions that may affect neurobehavioral functioning.

Intellectual disability experts at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, a unit within Commonwealth Medicine, assisted in the design of TAM. Development and testing was supported with a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

McIlvane said TAM has the potential to enhance neurobehavioral testing for very young children and the elderly. For example, one could apply TAM to conduct unusually careful measurements of a person’s memory skills for use in the diagnosis and treatment of age-related dementia.