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Nutrition Studies Get Psyched Over the Internet

By Judy McBride
November 4, 1999

A person's nutritional status can affect behavior and learning. But only a handful of psychologists are involved in nutrition studies. So Agricultural Research Service psychologist James Penland found a way to clone himself via the Internet.

From his computer in Grand Forks, N.D., Penland has collaborated on nutrition studies in China, Guatemala, New Zealand, San Francisco, and Brownsville, Texas.

Penland computerized a battery of tasks for testing the cognitive and motor functions of study volunteers. He sends the tests to study leaders, receives the raw data, scores and analyzes it in his lab, and returns the results--all electronically.

In the mid-1990's, Penland collaborated with Harold Sandstead at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston on a study of 1,400 school children in China. It was the first long-distance study of its kind. Computerized testing made such a large study feasible. And since the computer doesn’t vary how it administers the tasks, the study is highly standardized.

Results showed that poor, urban Chinese children improved in perception, memory and reasoning skills after getting extra zinc or zinc plus other essential vitamins and minerals.

Unlike the limited scope of most other computerized tests, Penland's can assess the gamut of psychological functions. They include tests of fine and gross motor skills, eye-hand coordination, sustained attention, spatial and verbal memory, visual perception, concept formation, abstract reasoning and others. The test can be tailored to fit any age, ethnic group or study protocol.

Penland's laboratory is now putting the finishing touches on a Windows version of the test battery. It will be capable of incorporating video, sound and external devices such as an electroencephalogram (EEG) for measuring volunteers' electrophysiological responses.

Read more about this research in the November issue of Agricultural Research magazine at:


ARS is the chief research agency in the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: James Penland, ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, Grand Forks, ND, phone 701-795-8471, fax 701-798-8395,