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Harnessing Neuroplasticity for Behavior Change
September 23-24, 2013

Executive Summary

Background and Purpose of the Workshop

Nearly 40 percent of premature mortality in the developed world is caused by unhealthful behaviors. Changing these behaviors can be very hard. Achieving sustained change constitutes an even greater challenge. There is a great need for research that can inform the understanding of the mechanisms underlying deleterious behaviors and interventions to circumvent them, thereby promoting healthful behavior, preventing disease, and improving quality of life.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) Common Fund Program supports activities aimed at understanding all behavior change—developing and sustaining normal, healthful behaviors, changing unhealthful behaviors and habits, and intervening with various treatment approaches to change disordered, dysregulated behaviors that are symptoms of psychiatric disease. SOBC’s Harnessing Neuroplasticity for Behavior Change meeting brought together a diverse group of scientists to present and discuss research that can inform understanding of the mechanisms of behavior change and help optimize manipulations for inducing and/or maintaining change. (See appendix 1 for the meeting agenda.)

The workshop participants (appendix 2) were charged with the task of reviewing the state-of-the-science to determine the value added by the integration of neurobiological measures into research on behavior change interventions, the challenges and limitations associated with bio-behavioral research approaches, and the related scientific, interpretive, and pragmatic issues.

The meeting focused on an evaluation of known neurobiological substrates, processes, and mechanisms that hold potential for informing the science of behavior change. Neurobiological information can act as a marker that correlates with response to interventions. In experimental designs, moderators can account for differences in response to the experimental treatment. For example, males might respond to a manipulation or intervention, but females do not. In this case, sex acts as a moderating variable for treatment effects or outcome. Neurobiological variables can also serve as moderators that determine the degree to which an individual responds to an intervention.

Mediating variables are those through which the experimental manipulation or treatment may induce its effect on the outcome of interest. For example, successful therapeutic behavior change may be dependent upon changes in cognitive processes, such as appraisal. In this case, appraisal is a mediating variable (although direct manipulation is subsequently necessary to determine causation). Neurobiological mechanisms acting as mediators are also potentially responsible for intervention-induced behavioral change (e.g., changes in pattern of neural activation, connectivity, default state, conduction efficiency). These mediating variables constitute the most promising targets for interventions.

At this meeting, participants discussed the use, or potential use, of neurobiological variables as predictors, biomarkers, moderators, or mediators in behavior change research. They examined the state-of-the-science in this area, identified current barriers in the field, and discussed future research priorities.

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