URI gets ACS grant to model addictive behavior

KINGSTON VILLAGE – When contemporary health professionals conduct long-term intensive studies to describe what drives addictive behaviors such as smoking, their studies produce tremendous amounts of data.

To help analyze those data and characterize critical processes underlying addiction, Theodore Walls, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Rhode Island, has received an American Cancer Society grant to develop new quantitative models. These models will be based on the integration of models used in engineering and the physical sciences with statistical approaches used typically in behavioral science.

The five-year American Cancer Society “Mentored Research Scholar Grant,” for $594,000, will support the development of new dynamical models to describe self-regulation in addiction, particularly in the case of smoking behavior.

Walls will use real-time data– collected using the Internet, cell phones, and other electronic sensors of biomarkers – to characterize factors such as the urge to smoke, mood, and actual smoking events for different types of smokers.

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A recent increase in the number of real-time studies being conducted has created the rich pool of behavioral data that is needed to produce such dynamic models, he said. “The missing link in helping us to learn from these studies is the family of analytical models needed to decode those data and extract from them information that can then be used to define prevention and treatment strategies for various types of addiction,” Walls explained.

He will work with leading faculty at URI and substance abuse scientists in several countries to develop “the next wave of quantitative models” for smoking and other health behavior studies.

The new project leverages his extensive background in developmental psychology and statistical modeling of long-term study data. Serving as joint mentors for the award are Wayne Velicer, Department of Psychology/CPRC at URI, and Raymond Niaura, of Butler Hospital andBrown Medical School. Other colleagues who will assist with aspects of the model development include David Chelidze of URI; James Ramsay of McGill University in Montreal; Daniel Rivera of Arizona State University; Michael Rovine and Joseph Schafer, both of Pennsylvania State University;and Saul Shiffman of the University of Pittsburg.

Walls, who joined the URI psychology faculty just over two years ago, has established a lab devoted to the study of behavioral processes, involving graduate students Andrew Sorkin and JaeJoon Song and undergraduates Mike Furtado, Katie Fischer, Alexandra Mancini, and Kylie Tanner in 2005. (Projects now underway in the lab include a collaboration with Doctors Rich Rende and Cheryl Slomkowski, at Brown University Medical School, on a study that considers the daily smoking behavior of adolescent siblings.) The new award will allow Wall to extend his activities with these students and develop new studies of the processes of addiction.

A resident of Westwood, Mass., Walls is the editor of a recent book on statistical models for intensive longitudinal models and the author of numerous professional journal articles.

Before joining URI, he was a research scientist at the Yale University School of Medicine and a post-doctoral fellow at the Methodology Center at Penn State. He was also a 2004 recipient of an award for the study of diverse lives from the Murray Archive at the Institute of Quantitative Science, Harvard University. He holds a PhD. from Boston College and a B.A. from Bates College.