$10-Million Center Innovating Research in Drug Abuse and HIV/AIDS Prevention and Treatment

December 7, 2010

Penn State’s Methodology Center in the College of Health and Human Development has received a five-year, $10.8-million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The research center grant (P50), which is its third renewal, focuses on four initiatives to innovate methodological and statistical techniques related to the prevention and reduction of HIV incidence, substance abuse, and associated risky behaviors.

Much of the new grant is related to behavioral interventions for prevention and treatment of drug use and risky sexual behavior. Examples include school-based drug abuse prevention curriculums, such as DARE, and programs to help people quit smoking.

“Behavioral interventions are a critical part of today’s drug abuse and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment,” says Dr. Linda Collins, director of the center. “To be effective, these behavioral interventions must be based on sound scientific evidence. This is where we come in. Our work on statistical methodology provides intervention scientists with the ability to look at their data in new ways and draw valid conclusions. Ultimately, we aim to improve quantitative methods in prevention and treatment research to enable researchers to get the information they need to develop highly effective behavioral interventions.”

One theme in several of the center’s new projects is adaptive behavioral interventions, which are tailored to an individual’s needs and risk factors, recognizing that they change over time. For example, if a person undergoing drug abuse treatment is showing signs of relapse, an adaptive intervention might increase the amount of substance use counseling to stave off the relapse and help the individual continue to make progress. One project in the new grant is developing innovative experimental designs that aim to help intervention scientists build an evidence-based framework for choosing the best time to change the treatment and for deciding which revised treatment should be offered.

Several of the center’s new projects are looking at innovative ways to examine the determinants—and consequences—of the use of tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, and other substances, as well as risky sexual behavior.

“The reality is that individuals who develop substance abuse or risky sexual behaviors are at risk for other behavioral problems,” says Dr. Stephanie Lanza, scientific director of the center. “It makes sense to track behaviors and risk factors over a long period of time to improve our understanding of how individuals deal with these risks.” One project in particular is using longitudinal data to identify groups of individuals with distinct profiles of multiple risk factors, and then examine whether these profiles are related to subsequent drug use and risky sexual behavior. This information can be used to develop adaptive interventions that can be tailored to the needs of individuals with different risk profiles.

In addition to funding four new research initiatives, the NIDA grant is funding the center’s administrative infrastructure, as well as a team of programmers devoted to developing and disseminating new, freely available, user-friendly statistical software. The Methodology Center maintains nearly a dozen software applications and programs for use in data analysis and designing experiments, all of which are available for free on the Methodology Center website. Other dissemination efforts include the center’s annual Summer Institute, which informs applied researchers across the country about cutting-edge research methods, and several workshops and graduate seminars at Penn State.

The Methodology Center is composed of an interdisciplinary team representing fields including human development and family studies, statistics, communication arts and sciences, psychology, and health policy and administration. The center was established in 1988 and received its first P50 grant from the National Institutes of Health in 1996, under the direction of Collins.

Investigators on the new center grant include Collins; Lanza; Dr. Donna Coffman, research associate in the Methodology Center; Dr. Runze Li, professor of statistics, Penn State; and Dr. Susan Murphy, H.E. Robbins Professor of Statistics, The University of Michigan.

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Editors: Linda Collins can be reached at LMCollins@psu.edu and Stephanie Lanza can be reached at SLanza@psu.edu. For additional information, contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.