Scientific News from the Behavioral Research Program (BRP)

Foreword from William Klein, Associate Director of BRP

William KleinWilliam Klein, Ph.D.
Associate Director, BRP

As Associate Director of the BRP within the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI’s) Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences (DCCPS), I am pleased to present the first issue of BRP Scientific News. This e-newsletter will highlight extramural scientific advances and provide information about training opportunities, research tools, initiatives, and events sponsored by the program. We hope that you enjoy reading this issue and find it useful in advancing your own research. The need for rigorous basic and applied research in the behavioral and social sciences in a health context has never been greater, and we appreciate your important role in advancing these efforts.

BRP initiates, supports, and evaluates a comprehensive program of research ranging from basic behavioral research to the development, testing, and dissemination of interventions in areas such as tobacco use, screening, dietary behavior, and sun protection. Read more about BRP. After a long-range evaluation of the research portfolio and strategic plan, BRP was reorganized in 2012. More information about the reorganization can be found in the American Psychological Association’s September 2012 issue of Psychological Science Agenda. Earlier this year, BRP leadership published a manuscript in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, “Behavioral Research in Cancer Prevention and Control: A Look to the Future.” In the paper, we highlight important opportunities in behavioral research and consider contemporary avenues of application for cancer control at several levels of the cancer continuum.

Our aim is to reinforce our commitment to open channels of communication with the research community. If you wish to continue receiving BRP Scientific News, please be sure to place this email address in your address book to ensure proper delivery. All issues will be archived online and you may also unsubscribe at any time. We welcome your feedback. Please do not hesitate to contact me, or any member of the BRP staff. BRP’s online staff directory was designed to help you find the appropriate contact for a research project, view our network of mentorship and collaboration, and learn more about behavioral research at the National Cancer Institute.

Funding Opportunities

A full list of current BRP Funding Opportunity Announcements can be found online. This list highlights some ongoing research initiatives relevant to behavioral medicine at NIH.

The National Cancer Institute Network on Biobehavioral Pathways in Cancer has just closed its first Request for Proposals (RFP), Issued by Leidos Biomedical Research, Inc. (S14-075). The RFP collected novel small scale pilot project proposals to advance the knowledge of molecular pathways that link psychological, behavioral, or social factors to cancer biology. These projects will inform further research opportunities to develop effective interventions and improve clinical outcomes.

Letters of Intent to apply for the Funding Announcement, Fundamental Mechanisms of Affective and Decisional Processes in Cancer Control (PAR-14-067) will be accepted beginning in May 2014. This initiative will support research to generate new fundamental knowledge of affective processes. Successful basic affective science projects must have downstream consequences for single and multiple event decisions and behaviors in cancer prevention and control. However, projects do not necessarily need to examine these decisions and behaviors directly, as long as future cancer implications are clearly defined.

Scientists within disciplines not traditionally focused on cancer research are encouraged to apply. Such disciplines might include, but are not limited to affective and cognitive science, decision science, consumer science, and neuroscience. For inquiries on this funding announcement, please contact Rebecca Ferrer.

Applications for Funding Announcement, Using Social Media to Understand and Address Substance Use and Addiction [RFA-CA-14-008 (R01) & RFA-CA-14-009 (R21)] have been submitted. This initiative is funded as part of the trans-NIH partnership, Collaborative Research on Addiction at NIH and will support research to study the role of social media in risk behaviors associated with alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. For inquiries on this funding announcement, please contact: Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou.

BRP funds a large portfolio of grants and contracts. The portfolio currently includes more than 330 grants valued at more than $166 million. Major funding areas include research project grants, center grants, and contracts. Although many investigator-initiated (unsolicited) applications are received for new, expanded, and/or high-priority programs, BRP may also support grant applications through Program Announcements or Request for Applications in a specific area of interest. BRP Program Directors can advise you throughout the application process from development of your idea through submission and review.

Career and Training Announcements

A full list of BRP Fellowship and Career Postings can be found online. At this time, BRP is pleased to invite applications from qualified candidates for a Program Director/Health Science Administrator Position and a Cancer Research Training Award (CRTA) Fellowship.

BRP seeks to recruit a dynamic Program Director (Health Scientist Administrator) to join the Process of Care Research Branch with expertise in organizational effects on health care delivery, cancer survivorship, care planning, and multilevel health care interventions. Please contact Lashonda Harris to express your interest in applying.

Applications are being accepted for CRTA Fellowships in the BRP Science of Research and Technology Branch and Process of Care Research Branch.

Please join us in welcoming our newest members to the BRP team!

Please welcome IPA David K. Ahern, Ph.D.

Dr. David K. Ahern

Dr. David K. Ahern
Special Advisor, Health Communication and Informatics

Dr. David K. Ahern is on special assignment to the National Cancer Institute under an Intergovernmental Personnel Act in which he will serve as a special advisor to the Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch. In this role he will assist the chief and staff in developing a research agenda in health and behavioral informatics to enable enhanced care across the cancer care continuum.

Dr. Ahern has published across a broad spectrum of illnesses including chronic pain, cardiovascular diseases, and somatization disorders. Over the course of a 30-year research career, he has assumed investigator roles on numerous NIH grants/contracts in the areas of chronic pain psychophysiology, behavioral and psychosocial aspects of cardiovascular disease, somatoform disorders, and eHealth. While on staff at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Dr. Ahern developed a nationally recognized Behavioral Medicine clinical and research training program and pioneered the use of innovative technology systems for outcomes assessment in health care. In 2001 he transferred his primary hospital appointment from MGH to the Brigham & Women’s Hospital to continue ongoing collaboration with Dr. Arthur Barsky on research on hypochondriasis and unexplained medical symptoms. In addition to academic activities at Harvard, since 1997 he has been a senior scientist for a technology-based healthcare firm in Rhode Island. In May 2010, Dr. Ahern was appointed to direct the Program in Behavioral Informatics and eHealth to expand research initiatives at the intersection of health information technology and mental health within the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham & Women’s Hospital. Current projects include an initiative to deploy and implement technologies for assessment and treatment of psychiatric disorders within the outpatient department of psychiatry and pursuit of grant opportunities in health information technology and mental health.

Please welcome Catherine M. Alfano, Ph.D., MS

Catherine Alfano

Catherine Alfano,
Program Director, BRP

Dr. Catherine Alfano is a Program Director in the BRP within the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at NCI. Dr. Alfano’s primary appointment is with the Health Behaviors Research Branch, and her secondary appointment is in the Basic Biobehavioral and Psychological Sciences Branch. Dr. Alfano has served as a Program Director at NCI since 2008; she previously also served as the Deputy Director of NCI’s Office of Cancer Survivorship. She champions research that focuses on physical activity and weight management among cancer survivors and on elucidating the biological mechanisms through which these interventions affect health and cancer prognosis.

Prior to joining NCI, Dr. Alfano was a faculty member at The Ohio State University (OSU) College of Public Health, the OSU Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the OSU Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. Her research interests focused on interventions to promote physical activity in cancer survivors and the interrelationships between physical activity, energy balance, and biological mechanisms underlying risk for chronic and late effects of cancer treatment as well as prognosis.

The pursuit of happiness

In an article published in Nature, Dr. Steve Cole, a founding member of the National Cancer Institute Network on Biobehavioral Pathways in Cancer, discusses his programs of research to analyze molecular pathways by which social and environmental factors influence health. Dr. Cole has published several studies suggesting a correlation between negative mood (such as loneliness or stress) and our body’s gene expression. His connections suggest that mood can influence an array of illnesses, from diabetes to HIV and cancer. Dr. Cole’s first investigation (PDF) exit disclaimer focused on loneliness, a known psychological risk factor. He examined the whole genome of chronically lonely people, and compared it to that of people who reported having strong social support. Dr. Cole discovered that 209 of the 22,000 genes in the human genome differed between the two groups. Interestingly, of the genes that were up-regulated among lonely people, most were implicated in the inflammatory response. Now, Dr. Cole has moved into the realm of happiness with the help of collaborator Dr. Barbara Frederickson. Studying well-being is particularly difficult because, unlike stress, there are no biological markers to help quantify it. Recently, Drs. Cole and Frederickson have tried to distinguish between two types of happiness: hedonic well-being (characterized by material pleasures), and eudaimonic well-being (deeper satisfaction resulting from a feeling of purpose). They discovered that there are actual gene expression differences between the two types; those reporting higher levels of eudaimonic well-being had gene expression profiles similar to those who reported having strong social support. On the contrary, hedonic well-being was associated with gene expression profiles of people with negative mood-states or of those lacking social support. Dr. Cole hypothesizes that the pattern he has observed has to do with stress. That is to say, those who are driven by eudaimonic well-being (meaning, they feel happiness due to connections beyond themselves, such as community involvement, social relationships, or intellectual pursuits) are better able to deal with stressful situations.

Cole SW, Hawkley LC, Arevalo JM, Sung CY, Rose RM, Cacioppo JT.  Social regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes. Genome Biology, Open Access. 2007.
Marchant J. Immunology: The pursuit of happiness. Nature, 503:458-460. 2013.
Frederickson L, Grewen KM, Coffey KA, Algoe SB, Firestine AM, Arevalo JMG, Ma J, Cole SW. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(33): 13,684–13,689. 2013.

Divulging DNA secrets of dead stirs debate

Gloria Petersen of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, whose work is supported by the Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch in DCCPS, is among the first to examine how to return genetic information to relatives of a deceased research participant.

In the United States, when a person dies, doctors may advise the dissemination of relevant news to relatives. However, the law is less clear in situations with study volunteers, where scientists do not have the same obligations as physicians do with their patients. Recently, with funding from NCI, Petersen has surveyed 3,000 people with pancreatic cancer and their families, as well as 3,000 control participants to determine opinion about posthumous privacy and information-sharing in various scenarios. Although relatives almost always feel that the researcher is obligated to report useful information (such as a BRCA2 mutation), sharing information can conflict with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, as well as state privacy laws, depending to whom the information is disclosed to. Petersen and her colleagues plan to draft guidance on returning genetic results to relatives, due out this fall.

Frankel-Couzin Jennifer. Divulging DNA secrets of dead stirs debate. Science, 343: 356-357. 2014.

Yoga’s impact on inflammation, mood, and fatigue in breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial

In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology and funded by the Basic Biobehavioral and Psychological Sciences Branch of the BRP, Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and her colleagues investigated the effects of yoga on inflammation, mood, and fatigue in breast cancer survivors. A three-month trial was conducted with breast cancer survivors either assigned to 12 weeks of 90-minute hatha yoga classes or a wait-list control. Results showed that the yoga group had higher post-treatment vitality and lower fatigue. The study also found that certain pro-inflammatory cytokines associated with negative health outcomes were lower among those who participated in yoga. The authors suggest that the persistent fatigue felt among cancer survivors is related to heightened inflammation levels. They also suggest that the results of the present study could be applied to other people who suffer from issues related to fatigue and inflammation.

Kiecolt-Glaser JK, et al. Yoga’s impact on inflammation, mood, and fatigue in breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 32:1–12. 2014.

Understanding ‘chemobrain’

In a piece published in the APS Observer, BRP members Jerry Suls, Wendy Nelson, and Lynne Padgett discuss the prevalence of cognitive dysfunction resulting from standard-dose chemotherapy cancer treatment.

The experience of “chemobrain” refers to the diffuse mental slowing and fogginess thought to result from the neurotoxic effects of chemotherapy. These cognitive changes can occur at any point during or following chemotherapy and may persist for months or years. Although the cancer survivor community has been aware of chemobrain for some time, it is only recently that clinicians and researchers have attempted to study this phenomenon more systematically. Part of the problem in studying chemobrain is that the experience is different for each patient. In addition, standard neuropsychological tests may not be sensitive enough to detect the often subtle cognitive changes that accompany chemotherapy and cancer treatment. To date, most of the research on chemobrain has been the province of neuropsychologists and oncologists. A multidisciplinary approach involving, for example, cognitive scientists, aging researchers, and dementia researchers, is needed to broaden our understanding of chemobrain.

Nelson WL, Suls J, Padgett L. Understanding Chemobrain. Observer, Vol.27, No. 2, February 2014.

Young using e-cigarettes; smoke too

In an article funded by the Tobacco Control Research Branch of the BRP and published in JAMA Pediatrics, Dr. Stanton Glantz, the American Legacy Foundation Distinguished Professor of Tobacco Control and director for the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, explores the prevalence of cigarette smoking among youth who also utilize electronic cigarette  (e-cigarette) devices.

E-cigarettes are devices that deliver nicotine, but contain lower levels of toxins than regular cigarettes. E-cigarette use has doubled among youths in grades 6 through 12 between 2011 and 2012, going from 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent. The present research study found that among middle and high school students, those who used e-cigarettes were more likely to be real cigarette smokers, and also less likely to quit than students who did not use the electronic devices. Additionally, the study found that e-cigarette users are more likely to be heavy smokers. According to Dr. Glantz, the use of e-cigarettes among U.S. adolescents appears to be encouraging cigarette use, as opposed to curbing it or leading to quitting. However, in an article published in The New York Times, other researchers have challenged that notion, arguing that the correlation between youths who smoke and have a harder time quitting and e-cigarette users may not necessarily point to e-cigarettes as being the cause of these factors. The study has sparked further debate over the impact of new devices in the arena of current smokers. Many contend that there is still not enough data.

Dutra LM & Galntz SA Electronic cigarettes and conventional cigarette use among U.S. adolescents: a cross-sectional study. JAMA Pediatrics. Online 2014.

Tavernise S. Young using e-cigarettes smoke too, study finds. The New York Times. Online March 6, 2014.

Resources and Research Tools

The JNCI Monographs issue “Cancer Prevention and Control in the Changing Communication Landscape,” led by Dr. Kelly Blake, Dr. Sylvia Chou, Dr. Brad Hesse, and Dr. Abby Prestin is now in print. There are 16 papers that comprise the special issue, consisting of mostly empirical pieces, complemented by a set of commentaries, brief reports, and systematic reviews.

National Meetings and Events

The 2014 Crosstalk Symposium 2014, Leveraging Lessons Learned across Behavioral Domains will take place at NCI in Rockville, October 30th to 31st, 2014. The symposium will feature researchers whose work explicitly translates theory and/or methods from one health topic (e.g., physical activity) to another (e.g., tobacco cessation). We will discuss how to overcome interdisciplinary research barriers and try to forge collaborations between NCI and individuals interested in multi-domain approaches. Individuals interested in attending the event should contact Emily Grenen ( for more information.

The Process of Cancer Care Cyber Discussion (PC3) series explores the way in which individuals, teams, and healthcare organizations can act and interact to improve health through cancer care delivery. The PC3 series will consider major topics in cancer prevention and control and pose questions for discussion among researchers and providers of care that help elaborate important areas for future research.

Visit the archive page to view other Scientific News from the Behavioral Research Program newsletters.