A new interdisciplinary conference devoted to the science of behavior change begins this week for researchers studying how an individual’s poor decisions may lead to a variety of health problems.

A significant portion of health care costs in the United States results from chronic conditions caused by risky health choices and behavior, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with at least one chronic condition accounted for 86 percent of all health care spending in 2010. Conditions attributed to risky behaviors include many addictions and, in some cases, obesity and type II diabetes.

The conference participants study similar underlying principles of different chronic health conditions, such as obesity, or risky health behaviors, like not complying with medical advice. Surprisingly, though, the meeting will be the first time many of them have a chance to interact, according to Virginia Tech Carilion Behavioral Health Research Professor Warren Bickel, of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI).

“Decision processes operate in multiple disorders and across multiple levels in the brain, but the people who study those disorders are often stuck in the silos of their specific research,” said Bickel, who co-directs the recently established VTCRI Center for Transformative Research on Health Behaviors, along with Matt Hulver, an associate professor and head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise. “The people studying decision-making process behind obesity often aren’t talking to the people who study decision-making challenges or behavior in addiction, or in medication plans, or in Type II diabetes, and on and on.”

The meeting, called the Society of Trans-Disease Decisions Processes and Therapeutics, is a satellite conference of the Association for Psychological Science annual convention in Boston, Massachusetts.

The convention is devoted to the science of change, so Bickel and his team are hoping to capitalize on the opportunity to pull together the threads of decision processes woven through various disorders.

“If our meeting is successful, we hope we’ll be able to create a society where the idea flow between different silos of disorders will increase dramatically, along with our progress and understanding of the role of decision-making in these disparate disorders and how we might improve them,” said Bickel, who also directs the VTCRI Addiction Recovery Research Center and is a professor of psychology in Virginia Tech's College of Science.

The National Institute of Health Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research partially funded the meeting, and the office’s director, William Riley, will offer opening remarks with Bickel. Other speakers include international experts on drug and food addiction, impulsivity, and risky behaviors.

The meeting is also partially supported with funds from a $2.4 million grant awarded to Bickel and Leonard Epstein, the State University of New York Distinguished Professor and chief of behavioral medicine at the University at Buffalo. Epstein will also speak at the meeting. The grant, conferred by the NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases’ Science of Behavior Change Initiative, primarily funds a research project on health behaviors in pre-diabetic people.

Bickel and his team have also funded several travel awards for students and early career scientists to attend the meeting and present posters on their work. The input of young researchers is critical to the success of the society and, ultimately, understanding changing health behaviors for the better, according to Bickel.

“This meeting is an opportunity to bring us all together to collaborate and exchange ideas in a way that we haven’t done previously,” Bickel said. “Hopefully, together, we’ll be able to accelerate the pace of change.” 

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