University of Vermont

College of Medicine

Vermont Center on Behavior and Health

News & Events

Higgins, Heil, and Colleagues Look Deeper into the Unhealthy Behaviors Targeted by New Year’s Resolutions - December 2014


Losing weight, quitting smoking, and getting fit are among the most popular New Year’s resolutions that get both made and broken every year, and with good reason: unhealthy behaviors are hard to change. Stephen Higgins, Ph.D., VCBH director, UVM professor of psychiatry and psychology, and guest editor of a special issue of Preventive Medicine on “Behavior Change, Health, and Health Disparities,” says “The evidence is clear that personal behavior patterns like cigarette smoking and physical inactivity/obesity are critically important proximal causes of chronic disease (cardiovascular disease, site-specific cancers, type-2 diabetes) and as such, behavior change will need to be a key component of their management.”

The research highlighted in the issue – all presented at the VCBH’s 2013 annual national conference – provides evidence that change is possible, with cigarette smoking serving as a particularly good example, thanks to 50 years of programmatic effort, including intervention strategies that are showing success in VCBH research.



Steve Higgins, VCBH Director, Recipient of the Virginia H. Donaldson MD '51 Professorship at the University of Vermont - December 2014


The University of Vermont's College of Medicine announced that Stephen Higgins, Ph.D., Director of the VCBH and professor of psychiatry and psychology, is the recipient of the Virginia H. Donaldson MD '51 Professorship at the University of Vermont. According to UVM leadership, “an endowed professorship or chair is one of the highest honors the University can bestow upon a faculty member.” In a letter announcing this honor, College of Medicine Dean Rick Morin cited Steve's " accomplishments and commitment to the College of Medicine and the University of Vermont as an outstanding scientific collaborator and as a dedicated mentor and educator."


Steve Higgins, VCBH Director, Named Among Top FY14 Research Award Recipients - November 2014


Despite the continued challenges in securing National Institutes of Health (NIH) research support in fiscal year 2014 – including sequestration and lower grant application success rates – the University of Vermont College of Medicine was fortunate to secure $81.4 million in grant funding in fiscal year 2014 (FY14), which ran from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014. That figure was significantly more than one half and nearly two-thirds of the total $128.04 million in funding received by the entire University of Vermont and represents a total of 280 awards to faculty at the College of Medicine. Stephen Higgins, Ph.D., Director of the VCBH and professor of psychiatry and psychology, has been recognized as one of the top grant recipients of 2014. In FY14, Dr. Higgins received notice of more than $34.7 million in funding during a single week.




VCBH Researcher, Hugh Garavan Ph.D., and Colleagues Published in Nature - November 2014


Hugh Garavan Ph.D. and his colleagues in the Departments of Psychiatry and Radiology at UVM have recently published a study in Nature identifying the predictors of adolescent binge drinking (Whelan et al., Nature, 2014). The study utilized data from an ongoing longitudinal study of adolescent development called IMAGEN (, a study on which Garavan is one of the site PIs. UVM researchers (Whelan, Orr, Althoff, Ortiz, Watts and senior author Garavan) determined that binge drinking at age 16 could be predicted at age 14 by employing novel analytic methods and a wide range of measures. The study is distinguished by having a large sample size and by showing that a range of measures (genetic, brain, personality, family history of drug use, history of stressful life events) contributed to the prediction thus showing how broad the range of risk factors for adolescent binge drinking might be. The study is one of the first to employ appropriate analytic methods to identify robust predictors of alcohol misuse and helps disentangle the causes from the consequences of use. More details in



VCBH Researcher, Hugh Garavan Ph.D., Participates with the ENIGMA Consortium - November 2014


The ENIGMA consortium ( seeks to identify brain-gene associations by pooling data from labs worldwide.  Currently, over 300 scientists from over 185 labs in over 30 countries have contributed data thus providing the statistical power necessary to detect the genetic correlates of brain structure and function. A number of separate working groups have been created within ENIGMA- some focusing on methodological issues while others on specific psychiatric conditions.


Hugh Garavan, a member of the VCBH based in the Psychiatry department in UVM, and Patricia Conrod (University of Montreal) have created an Addictions working group.  Funded by an NIH R21 grant to Garavan, this working group will search for genes that are associated with drug addiction.  The UVM team will explore if there are genes associated with a non-specific predisposition to addiction or genes that are drug-specific explaining, for example, the differences in drug preferences across individuals.  Questions concerning this can be best addressed by maximizing the statistical power afforded by the large data pooling effort.

The creation of large datasets raise novel data analytic challenges and ENIGMA has recently received one of the NIH’s new Big Data to Knowledge Center of Excellence awards (PI: Thompson at the University of Southern California; This grant provides funding for the Addictions working group and Garavan is a member of the grant’s five-person leadership team.  This grant was recently described in Science magazine ( and more details can be found in


2nd Annual VCBH Conference an Unqualified Success! - October 2014


Over 150 individuals attended the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health's 2nd Annual Conference on Behavior Change, Health, and Health Disparities. Thirty-one institutions were represented from 14 different states, with one international group attending from Spain. 


Overarching themes for the 2-day conference included the treatment of obesity, tobacco regulatory science, and Vermont's prescription-opioid problem. The keynote lecture, delivered by Leonard Epstein PhD of SUNY Buffalo, was titled, “Behavior Economics of Obesity."


The Obesity Section was chaired by Jean Harvey PhD and included lectures on the scope of obesity, choice architecture, financial incentives, the treatment of obesity in recently diagnosed diabetes cases, and incentives for cardiac rehabilitation use in low-SES individuals.


The Tobacco Regulatory Section was chaired by Charles Irvin PhD and featured lectures on tobacco control policy, e-cigarettes, the challenges surrounding smoking among disadvantaged women and those with mental illness, as well as the affective underpinnings of tobacco addiction and smokeless tobacco.


The Opioid Abuse Section showcased a pre-recorded video introduction from Senator Patrick Leahy (VT), and lectures by Vermont's Chief Medical Officer, Thomas Simpatico MD, as well as Vermont State’s Attorney, Tristram Coffin, who provided an “on-the-ground” perspective.  Subsequent lectures addressed federal efforts to curb opioid abuse, overdose rescue interventions, expanding access to evidence-based treatments, and leveraging drug courts. Lectures also covered opioid abuse and treatment in pregnancy and preventing unwanted pregnancies among opioid abusers.


In addition to scheduled lectures, 48 individuals presented posters in an informal evening session. Next year’s conference is scheduled for Oct. 1- 2, 2015 in Burlington, VT.  We hope the leaves will again be peaking – see you there!


View the recorded lectures.



New VCBH Grant Focuses on Reducing Unintended Pregnancy Among Opioid-Maintained Women - June 2014


Nearly 9 of every 10 pregnancies among opioid-dependent women are unplanned, says Sarah Heil, Ph.D., a founding Coinvestigator of the VCBH. Adding to the many costly adverse consequences of unintended pregnancy, infants born to opioid-dependent mothers have a high incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a condition that often requires extended hospitalization for monitoring and treatment. As a result, hospital charges to care for these infants are currently estimated at more than $700 million a year.

Heil’s latest project, funded by a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) award, will continue development of an innovative intervention that aims to increase use of more effective contraceptives among opioid-maintained women at risk of unintended pregnancy. The research may also produce important new insights into contraceptive decision-making that will aid in the development of more efficacious interventions for other populations of women at risk for unintended pregnancy.



Latest VCBH Publication on Financial Incentives to Help Pregnant Women Stop Smoking Featured in the Huffington Post - April 2014


VCBH Director Stephen Higgins, Ph.D., and colleagues, have developed an effective behavioral economic approach that offers pregnant women who smoke financial incentives to stop. This approach was published this month in Preventive Medicine. Since its publication, Dr. Higgins was featured in the Huffington Post speaking about the implications of this novel research.


In the article, he commented on the delicate use of financial incentives, "When you do incentive programs, you've got to offer a meaningful amount or you don't get a response. And you usually get a better response with still larger amounts."





New VCBH Grant Focuses on Treatments for Wait-Listed Opioid-Dependent Vermonters - April 2014


Nearly 1,000 Vermonters are currently wait-listed for treatment in Vermont and many more desperately need treatment but don’t bother to join a waitlist once they learn of the lengthy delay to treatment, says Stacey Sigmon, Ph.D., who directs Vermont’s first and largest methadone clinic and is a founding Coinvestigator of the VCBH at UVM.


Sigmon's latest project, funded by a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) award, will develop a novel Interim Buprenorphine Treatment to help opioid-dependent Vermonters bridge challenging waitlist delays. She’s proposed a treatment “package” of five key components designed to maximize patient access to evidence-based medication for opioid dependence while minimizing common barriers to treatment success, including risks of medication non-adherence, abuse and diversion.





Stacey Sigmon, Ph.D., Quoted as a National Expert on the Treatment of Heroin Addiction in Rural America - April 2014


University of Vermont Associate Professor of Psychiatry and COBRE Grant Core Director Stacey Sigmon, Ph.D. was quoted in the Tufts University Observer's recent article, "Heroin Use in Vermont." In this article, Dr. Sigmon provides expert insight on predictors of heroin abuse and addiction. She also notes that the use of heroin is more an issue of "availability or cost rather than clear preference.”





Phil Ades, MD, Featured in Wall Street Journal Article on Cardiac Rehabilitation for Heart Failure - April 2014


Associate Director of the COBRE Grant at the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health and University of Vermont Professor of Medicine Philip Ades, M.D., a cardiologist and director of cardiac rehabilitation at Fletcher Allen Health Care, is featured in a front-page “Personal Journal” section article that appeared in the April 1, 2014 Wall Street Journal.


Ades, in conjunction with the principal investigator Diann Gaalema, is currently conducting a study through UVM’s Vermont Center on Behavior and Health, to provide financial incentives to patients on Medicaid to attend cardiac rehab exercise sessions. Research evidence, says Ades, shows that this population does not attend CR or do exercise. Early results show promise for the incentivized program. The project is funded by UVM’s Center on Biomedical Research Excellence IDeA award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIH under grant number P20GM12345).





Phil Ades, MD, VCBH Associate Director and Professor of Medicine, Lectures at the Mayo Clinic - January 2014


Phil Ades, MD, Associate Director of the COBRE Grant at the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health and Professor of Medicine, gave two notable lectures at the Mayo Clinic on January 22, 2014. The first was a Medical Grand Rounds lecture on the topic of "The Future of Cardiac Rehabilitation/Secondary Prevention Programs". His second talk delivered to the Mayo Cardiovascular Society was part of the Gau Lectureship on Preventive Cardiology and addressed "Obesity and Weight Loss in Coronary Patients".



JAMA Psychiatry Study Evaluates Outpatient Detoxification in Prescription Opioid Abusers - October 2013

A recently-published study by VCBH faculty shows that patients addicted to prescription painkillers may respond favorably to a carefully-crafted, four-week buprenorphine taper plus naltrexone maintenance treatment. These clinical trial results were reported by Stacey Sigmon, Ph.D. and colleagues and published in the October 23, 2013 Online First edition of the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Abuse of prescription opioid drugs, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and hydromorphone, are a serious public health problem. Since 1990, drug overdose death rates have more than tripled in the U.S., with nearly three out of four prescription drug overdoses caused by prescription painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sigmon and colleagues conducted a 12-week randomized clinical trial in an outpatient research clinic with 70 prescription opioid-dependent patients to compare the efficacy of varying durations of outpatient detoxification. After a two-week period of stabilization on buprenorphine, an opioid agonist medication, patients were randomized to gradually reduce the dose of the buprenorphine over one, two or four weeks followed by treatment with naltrexone, a drug that blocks opioid receptors and prevents a return to opioid dependence. Patients in all groups also received individual behavioral therapy, HIV and hepatitis education, and urinalysis monitoring.

The study findings indicate that opioid abstinence was greater in patients receiving the four-week taper compared with the two- and one-week taper conditions. These results suggest that a meaningful subset of prescription opioid abusers may respond favorably to outpatient treatment with buprenorphine detoxification in combination with naltrexone and behavioral therapy, say Sigmon and her colleagues.


VCBH receives $34.7 million in Funding for Behavioral Health Research - September 2013

September 20, 2013 - Professor of Psychiatry Stephen T. Higgins, Ph.D., and colleagues received an unprecedented $34.7 million in funding for behavior and health-related research that will be housed in the VCBH at the University of Vermont. On Monday, the College announced the receipt of an $11.5 million NIH Institutional Development Award COBRE grant. On Thursday, the FDA and NIH announced that UVM is one of 14 institutions to receive a TCORS award, bringing an additional $19.5 million to the University. In addition, Dr. Higgins received notice of a $3.7 million NIH award to study smoking cessation incentives in disadvantaged pregnant women.


UVM's VCBH Awarded $19.5 million to Study Tobacco - September 2013

September 19, 2013 - The VCBH received $19.5 million in funding from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today as part of an on-going interagency partnership. UVM officials announced today the school is one of 14 Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science (TCORS), which are receiving a total of up to $53 million for tobacco-related research in fiscal 2013. The TCORS are designed to generate research to inform the regulation of tobacco products and protect public health.

Stephen T. Higgins, PhD, Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Psychiatry will direct the center with John R. Hughes, MD, Professor, Department of Psychiatry serving as associate director, assisted by internationally recognized collaborators and consultants from Brown University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Minnesota, and University of Pittsburgh. The Vermont TCOR will focus on researching tobacco products in vulnerable populations, including economically disadvantaged women of childbearing age/pregnant women, individuals with other substance use disorders, and individuals with serious mental illness, all of whom are at increased risk for smoking and its adverse health effects. Yet despite these serious vulnerabilities, these populations are typically excluded from tobacco regulatory studies. For the FDA to effectively execute its tobacco regulatory responsibilities, it must have sound scientific evidence on how existing and new tobacco products impact vulnerable populations. Providing that information will be the mission of the Vermont TCOR.


New COBRE grant funded! - September 2013

Stephen Higgins, Ph.D. of Psychiatry and Philip Ades, M.D. of Cardiology are pleased to announce the awarding of a $11.5 million COBRE research grant from the National Institutes of Health to support development of the VCBH. This center studies the relationships between personal behaviors and risk for chronic disease and premature death.

This grant will support research projects led by five outstanding UVM junior faculty that include studies of weight control in breast cancer patients and overweight pregnant women; an intervention to increase cardiac rehabilitation participation in Medicaid patients; a study of heart disease risk in women with breast cancer and a study of the origins of obesity and heart disease risk in childhood psychiatric syndromes.

Directors of individual projects include Drs. Gaalema and Althoff of Psychiatry, Drs. Dittus and Lakoski of Medical Oncology and Dr. Phillips of Obstetrics. These investigators will receive mentoring by outstanding UVM scholars including Drs. Harvey-Berino of Nutrition, Hudziak of Psychiatry, and Bernstein of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences.

Dr. Sigmon of Psychiatry will oversee a behavioral economics research core to support these investigators and others on the UVM campus and she and Dr. Higgins will co-direct a collaboration and dissemination core that focused on tackling health-related behavior problems with regional, state, national, and international colleagues.

A highly accomplished team of UVM internal and external scientists (i.e., Brown University, University of Kentucky, Johns Hopkins University, University of California at San Francisco, University of New York at Buffalo, Virginia Tech University) will also contribute to this vibrant center of research excellence.

In summary, the VCBH integrates an interdisciplinary group of accomplished senior scientists, promising junior investigators, and distinguished advisors and collaborators to establish a center of excellence in an area of clinical research that is vitally important to U.S. public health.



Postdoctoral Fellow Position Available

The University of Vermont's Center on Behavior and Health announces the availability of NIH postdoctoral research fellowships in tobacco regulatory science and other addiction research.

Appointment: 2-3 yrs.
Eligibility: Applicants must have completed doctoral training in psychology, behavior analysis, or a related discipline and be U.S.
citizens or permanent residents. Trainees are selected on the basis of scholastic record and commitment to a career in substance abuse research.
Salary: Competitive commensurate with experience (PGY 1-7) and supported by NIH Institutional Training Awards. Read more>>

To apply: Forward curriculum vitae, statement of research interests, and 3 letters of reference to:

Stephen T. Higgins, PhD
c/o Ms. Diana Cain
University of Vermont, Dept. of Psychiatry
1 South Prospect St. UHC - MS#482
Burlington, VT 05401

Last modified December 28 2014 03:25 PM