T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T      J U L Y  –  A U G U S T   2006

OBSSR 10th Anniversary

by Fran Pollner
OBSSR Directors Emeriti: Norm Anderson (right), who led the office from its inception in 1995 until 2000, chatting with his successor, Raynard Kington, now NIH deputy director, as the crowd assembled at Natcher to mark the 10th anniversary of OBSSR

During his two years as OBSSR director at the beginning of the 21st century, Raynard Kington made the rounds of institute and center program directors to gauge their behavioral research interests.

The idea that there could be any interest was dismissed entirely by one director, Kington recalled in his introductory remarks at the two-day OBSSR 10th-anniversary symposium. "This individual responded by telling me, 'but you must understand, the students in my program are the very brightest students.' I proceeded to explain that even the brightest students choose careers in behavioral and social science research!" 

Nowadays, Kington observed, most people are more cognizant of the fact that it is behavioral science that will provide the missing links between gene-environmental interactions.

No less than 50 percent of the growing burden of chronic disease is related to behavioral and social factors, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni noted, advocating a shift from the "curative model of health,"  after the fact of illness, to one that recognizes that "chronic diseases do not occur on the day the patient visits the doctor but decades before." 

A Place at Every Table

Today, noted OBSSR Director David Abrams, each of the 27 institutes and centers "has a niche"  for behavioral and social science research.

Indeed, the ICs were out in force at the two-day meeting, filling the hallways with posters of their funded behavioral science research and brochures and other handouts on their BSSR programs and issues of particular relevance to their respective missions.

They targeted the behavioral components of disease mechanisms, environmental contributors to disease, motivations for and against adhering to prescribed regimens, how best to impart health information, ferreting out the reasons for health disparities, and many other issues. For some, like NIDA and NHLBI, the behavioral "niche" was nearly everywhere; for others, more defined.


Following is random sample of some of the NIH literature on display during the symposium, ranging from discrete studies to broader initiatives and programs. (This list does not reflect the sum total of the behavioral research of any of the institutes.)

NCCAM-funded research from the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, Ohio State University,Columbus, on "How Stress Kills and How Complementary/Alternative Medicine Interventions May Help: New Evidence from Psychoneuroimmunology" suggests that the  effect of yoga on soluble IL-6 receptor levels may help buffer inflammatory responses in such conditions as arthritis, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease.

NIDCR-funded research from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, Ann Arbor, and the Detroit Center for Research on Oral Health Disparities: "Solving Community Oral Health Problems through Action-Oriented Research" is focusing on two major community-wide issues—dental caries in children and their caregivers and oral cancer in African American men in Detroit.

NIMH-funded research from the University of Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Baltimore and the University of Iowa in Iowa City addresses the nature and impact of impaired attention control on cognition and overall functioning in schizophrenia, with implications for treatment. Issues addressed at recent NIMH-sponsored meetings include reward neurocircuitry in adolescents, treating children with depression, indigenous suicide-prevention programs, and HIV treatment adherence. Among potential new initiatives are translational research on the relationship between anxiety and depression, interventions and service-delivery models for youth transitioning to adulthood, and mental health issues in basic translational social neuroscience.

Dozens of published NICHD-funded studies on learning, obesity, and behavioral and social science research through the lifespan included such titles as "Dyslexia-Specific Brain Activation Profile Becomes Normal Following Successful Remedial Training," "Developmental Changes in the Functional Brain Responses of Adolescents to Images of High- and Low-Calorie Foods," and "Early Experience Alters Brain Function and Structure."

NIAAA provided an overview of institute-supported behavioral research on alcohol dependence; alcohol across the lifespan; the varying influences of genes and environment on different alcohol-related behaviors; behavioral phenotypes and alcohol-related problems; human genes affecting clinical and other phenotypes; the relationship of alcohol sensitivity and problematic use in adolescents; learning about drinking behavior from animal models; decisionmaking about alcohol; the affects of alcohol on brain and behavior; and behavioral approaches to intervention.

The Health and Retirement Study, a cooperative agreement between NIA and the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor amasses biomedical, psychological, genetic, and economic data that is a public resource for thousands of researchers. The institute's Behavioral and Social Research Program embraces individual behavioral processes and population and social processes.

The Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS), supported by NIGMS, involves transdisciplinary collaborations to develop computational models of the interactions between infectious agents and their hosts, disease spread, and response strategies. "Basic behavioral science research informs MIDAS modeling of human behavior under normal conditions and in response to an infectious disease outbreak." Other NIGMS initiatives with basic behavioral research components are a new program for Collaborative Research for Molecular and Genetic Studies of Basic Behavior in Animal Models and awards for Training at the Interface of the Behavioral Sciences and Biology.

NHGRI's Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) Research Program, with NICHD and the Department of Energy, funds four multidisciplinary Centers of Excellence in ELSI Research that address such issues as genomic health care and the medically underserved and the integration of research on genetics and ethics. Under consideration are centers for the study of health disparities in tobacco dependence, asthma, and diabetes; social and cultural identities of individuals and communities of African descent and how they influence attitudes about genomics, health care, and health behaviors; and how information from genetics studies is used in biomedical research related to newborn screening, adolescent health, and centralized DNA banking.

 NCI partners with NIDA and NIAAA (and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) to fund eight Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Centers and with OBSSR, NIEHS, NCMHD, and NIA to fund eight Centers for Population Health and Health Disparities. One of these centers, based at the University of Chicago, is exploring "Breast Cancer and Social Interactions: Identifying Multiple Environments that Regulate Gene Expression," which aims to explore the "influence of social environment and psychological factors on the epigenetic regulation of breast cancer gene expression." This research is designed to address the question of why "African American women develop a premenopausal form of breast cancer that is more lethal and aggressive than that experienced by white women."  

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