logobest_020Faculty Research

Stephen T. Higgins, Ph.D., VCBH Director, Professor Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology, Vice Chair Department of Psychiatry 

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

I am conducting two natural history studies of how daily tobacco smokers and daily marijuana users go about quitting, what prompts themto attempt to quit, and what do successful quitters do.  I also have a study in which former smokers now using e-cigarettes abruptly stop their use to see if there is a withdrawal syndrome. I have just completed studies of whether smoking cessation makes non-drug rewards less rewarding, and whether continuing nicotine patches after a lapse (and still smoking some) prevents full-blown relapse without causing side effects. Dr. Hughes developed the Minnesota Tobacco Withdrawal Scale, which evaluates the effects of smoking cessation on the respondent.

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 improvetobacco 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, examines social smoking in young adults and the ways in which social influences impact cigarette smoking trajectories in this age group. 

Hugh Garavan, Ph.D., Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology, VCBH Director of Neuroimaging

I am conducting a study that seeks to determine what are the most robust brain functional differences between current smokers andnonsmokers; and, if these differences are best detected when smokers have had an overnight abstinence from smoking. The neuroimaging battery assesses cognitive control (a response inhibition task), reward processing (a monetary incentive delay task) and smoking cue reactivity (a STROOP task using nicotine stimuli) and the participants are being tested twice (smokers once following overnight abstinence). The goal is to help decide the optimal task battery and procedures for assessing the impact of 12 weeks of low-nicotine cigarettes on brain function. A second project looks at the role of genetic variation in nicotinic receptors and how this 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.

Philip Ades, M.D., VCBH Associate Director, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine 

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.

Stacey C. Sigmon, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology 

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

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

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

I have spent the past 12 months becoming acquainted with the nature and extent of the opioid problem and the treatment effort inVermont. I have 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 the user population. I was recently awarded a contract from the State Department of Public Health to assess the impact of the Vermont Hub and Spoke treatment system for individuals with opioid-use disorders.