logobest_020Faculty Research

Stephen T. Higgins, Ph.D., VCBH Director, Professor Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology, Vice Chair Department of Psychiatry 
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My work as the Director of the VCBH spans a number of research projects. I am the P.I. for the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE), which focuses on investigating relationships between personal behaviors (lifestyle) and risk for chronic disease and premature death. Unhealthy personal behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, physical inactivity) account for 40% of premature deaths in the U.S. annually and substantially increase healthcare costs and health disparities. There is a tremendous need for greater scientific understanding of the mechanisms underpinning vulnerability to these risk behaviors; and, more effective interventions to promote behavior change. 
     I am also the P.I. for our Tobacco Center on Regulatory Science (TCORS) grant using the concepts, principles, and methods of behavioral economics and behavioral pharmacology to help the the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products in carrying out its charge of regulating tobacco products. Our center focuses specifically on tobacco products in vulnerable populations, including women of childbearing age/pregnant women, individuals with co-morbid other substance use disorders, and individuals with co-morbid serious mental illness. 
     In addition, I lead two R01 research grants. The first is studying behavioral economic interventions for smoking cessation among pregnant woman and the second is investigating the same among mothers of young children. 
     Lastly, I am the P.I. for our T32 training program which has been continuously funded since 1990 and provides pre-doctoral and postdoctoral training programs in substance abuse and health behavior research.

John R. Hughes, M.D., TCORS Associate Director, Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Psychological Sciences
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I am conducting studies testing 1) whether stopping e-cigarettes can cause withdrawal symptoms, 2) why never-smokers begin using e-cigarettes, 3) whether reducing nicotine by reducing number of cigarettes/day or by reducing nicotine content cigarettes is easier, 4) whether stopping smoking makes rewards less rewarding, and 5) whether anhedonia or positive affect are tobacco withdrawal symptoms.

Andrea Villanti, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry 
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My research is focused on tobacco use, including young adult tobacco prevention and cessation and translational research to improve tobacco control policy and program decision-making. For the past several years, I have conducted rapid, responsive research to inform tobacco-related policies, particularly the FDA regulation of tobacco products. A focus of my work in this area has been on the disproportionate prevalence of menthol and other flavored tobacco product use in young people. My research in young adults examines social and environmental predictors of tobacco use with the goal of informing effective individual-level and population-level tobacco interventions. One of my studies, funded by the National Cancer Institute and FDA, examines nicotine and tobacco harm perceptions and their impact on tobacco use behavior in young adults.

Hugh Garavan, Ph.D., Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology, VCBH Director of Neuroimaging
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My main TCORS involvement focuses on the use of structural and functional MRI to assess the impact of 12 weeks of low-nicotine cigarettes on nicotine-related addiction processes. Our ongoing study assesses psychological processes including nicotine cue-related activity, reward processing, and inhibitory control, as well as brain perfusion and resting-state connectivity and these measures are obtained at the start and end of the 12-week study. Our prior research on similar population of adult smokers has shown that perfusion and response inhibition related activity in bilateral inferior frontal gyrus differ between smokers and non-smokers so we will explore the extent to which these measures might be altered by the low-nicotine regimen. I am also conducting a number of adolescent longitudinal studies of nicotine exposure. For example, one project studies the role of genetic variation on nioctinic receptors and how this variation might relate to the effects of smoking on brain structure and function. The goal here is to determine risk factors for the earliest use of cigarettes by identifying those who might find smoking especially reinforcing. A long-term goal is to replicate and extend these findings in a very large longitudinal study of adolescent development (www.ABCDstudy.org). This study will follow over 10,000 adolescents for 10 years and will help identify the risk factors for and correlates of adolescent smoking.

Allison Kurti, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of PsychiatryImage of Allison Kurti

I am interested in behavioral approaches to promoting health in vulnerable populations, with a focus on reducing cigarette smoking amongwomen of reproductive age. I am also interested in increasing the use of technology in behavioral interventions to increase their attractiveness and their reach. Along those lines, I am conducting one study to develop a smartphone-based smoking cessation intervention for pregnant women. In a second study, I am conducting focus groups with postpartum women to gather their input on resources and tools to help promote health behaviors including smoking relapse prevention, breastfeeding, and physical activity. Alongside my treatment research, I am also interested in studying alternative tobacco product use among women of reproductive age using publicly available national data sets, as well as in how broader public health efforts or regulatory policies might reduce tobacco use in this population.

Philip Ades, M.D., VCBH Associate Director, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine 
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I am working closely with Diann E. Gaalema, Ph.D., on the COBRE-supported study on incentives to encourage cardiac rehabilitationparticipation in low socio-economic-status/Medicaid patients.  I am also working on a project looking at the value of “high-caloric expenditure exercise” on weight loss maintenance after successful completion of cardiac rehabilitation. Furthermore, I am working with the CDC to analyze the medical benefits of increasing cardiac rehabilitation participation nationally from 20 percent to 70 percent and outlining a “road map” to attain these higher participation rates. Finally, I am working with Sherrie Khadanga, M.D., on improving approaches to cardiac rehabilitation in women.

Stacey C. Sigmon, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology 
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My current research has two areas of focus. I have a clinical opioid research program with the overarching goal of developing and evaluating more efficacious treatments for opioid dependence.  Most recently, I completed a NIH-funded randomized trial demonstrating the efficacy of an interim buprenorphine dosing regimen for reducing illicit opioid use, injection drug use and related risk behaviors in waitlisted opioid abusers.  I also have longstanding research interest aimed at leveraging behavioral economic principles to support healthy behaviors, especially among disadvantaged populations—which involves tackling cigarette smoking among the challenging population of opioid-dependent patients. I am the Director of Vermont's first and largest opioid treatment program, which currently delivers methadone or buprenorphine maintenance treatment to approximately 1,000 Vermonters. 

Sarah H. Heil, Ph.D., Associate Professor with Tenure, Departments of Psychiatry and Psychological Sciences
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I am conducting a randomized controlled dismantling trial of an intervention to promote more effective contraceptive use among opioid-maintained women at risk for unintended pregnancy.  I am also carrying out studies examining the reliability and validity of pupil diameter as a measure of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) in neonates exposed to opioids in utero.  Furthermore, I am conducting studies evaluating the effects of very low nicotine content (VLNC) cigarettes in pregnant and non-pregnant women of low socioeconomic status, part of a series of studies being conducted with vulnerable populations in our Center on Tobacco Regulatory Science.   

Diann E. Gaalema, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology
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My research broadly focuses on improving health-related behaviors in vulnerable populations. In one large study, we look at the effects ofdifferent levels of nicotine in cigarettes among several vulnerable groups including those with depression and anxiety. I lead another large study that examines the use of incentives to improve attendance at cardiac rehabilitation among low socio-economic-status patients. My lab also conducts several other research projects including a multi-site trial examining how tobacco use changes following a major cardiac event and how different demographic and clinical characteristics predict adherence to secondary prevention guidelines.

Richard Rawson, Ph.D., Research Professor, Department of Psychiatry
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I have just completed an evaluation of the Vermont Hub and Spoke system of opioid addiction. I organized and chaired a meeting with national epidemiological experts to help the State Department of Public Health develop better estimates of opioid use in Vermont to help policymakers and health leaders plan for the healthcare needs of user population. I am leading an effort in California to export the Vermont Hub and Spoke model to expand the opioid treatment capacity throughout California. I am continuing my work with the World Health Organization to help develop treatment for substance use disorders in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Bader Chaarani, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry

My research mainly focuses on investigating the effects of nicotine exposure on the brain using structural and functional neuroimaging. I am currently part of the ongoing TCORS project where I am looking at the impact of 12 weeks of very low-nicotine content cigarettes on the brain in vulnerable populations. In another project, I examine the structural and functional neural correlates of low nicotine exposure as well as the genetic contribution of nicotinic receptor polymorphisms in a large sample of light smoker and non-smoker adolescents. Alongside my current research, I am also interested in applying novel machine learning techniques on big data sets to identify neurobiological and behavioral risk factors underlying substance use.