Director’s Corner

Sept. 5, 2018: The Translational Science of Changing Behavior

Christopher Austin

Behaviors such as physical inactivity, smoking and unhealthy eating have an enormous negative influence on health. Although unhealthy behaviors can lead to chronic disease, healthy behavior changes can be part of successful disease treatments. But making lasting behavior change is difficult, so translational scientists seek to understand, develop and implement more efficient and effective behavioral interventions, just as they do for the development of drugs, devices and medical procedures. 

The Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) program, which is supported through the NIH Common Fund and contributed to by NCATS, is taking a new and exciting approach to behavior change. Utilizing concepts from pre-clinical translation and drug development, behavioral scientists work to identify a target, develop assays (tests) to measure activity related to that target, and then study target activity in response to interventions. But rather than being molecular entities like proteins or genes, in behavior change research, the targets are the psychological processes and mechanisms that drive behavior. These include self-regulation, stress reactivity and stress resilience, or interpersonal and social processes.

For example, a measure of self-regulation is “delay discounting” — the degree to which a person chooses a small reward immediately (e.g., one more cookie) instead of a larger reward later (e.g., weight loss). Stress responses and stress recovery times are measures of stress reactivity and resilience. Using this approach allows translational researchers to not only test whether a behavior change intervention worked, but also why it worked — or did not.

Measures of target mechanisms that have been developed and validated by SOBC researchers, whether those measures are self-report assays, neuroimaging studies, physiological responses or behavioral assays, are freely available for use by others through the SOBC Measures Repository. This repository currently includes 113 measures in the areas of self-regulation, stress reactivity and resilience, and interpersonal and social processes.

Beyond its potential to make the development of behavioral interventions to prevent and treat disease more efficient and effective, this work promises to inform NCATS’ efforts to improve medication adherence and to advance the science of dissemination and implementation of interventions shown to improve health. 

Now about that cookie…

Christopher P. Austin, M.D.
National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences