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Engineering research aids development of new drug-addiction treatments

December 13, 2007

Treating drug abuse and addiction has traditionally been the sole business of medical and behavioral health practitioners. Today, partnerships among experts in a range of sciences has led to research cross-pollination. Now, for instance, behavioral scientists work with chemical engineers on new approaches to social problems such as substance abuse.

Daniel Rivera, an associate professor of chemical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, is involved in one such a collaboration.

Rivera, director of the Control Systems Engineering Laboratory, is leading two research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that focus on the application of control systems engineering to the practice of adaptive behavioral health interventions — used by medical and behavioral health professionals to treat behavioral issues such as drug dependency.

Used widely in the fields of chemical, electrical, mechanical and aerospace engineering, and in computer science, control engineering principles can also be applied to such diverse areas as supply chain management and human health. By applying them to behavioral health interventions, Rivera hopes to improve their overall design, efficacy and effectiveness.

“Control Engineering Approaches to Adaptive Interventions for Fighting Drug Abuse,” an NIH Mentored Quantitative Research Career Development Award, partners Rivera with Linda Collins, director of The Methodology Center and professor of statistics at Penn State University, and Susan Murphy, the H.E. Robbins Professor of Statistics, professor of psychiatry and research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

The award is funded by the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse for $875,000 over five years. Under the mentorship of Collins and Murphy, Rivera will examine the application of control engineering concepts to adaptive interventions intended for drug abuse prevention and treatment.

Adaptive interventions are individualized treatment regimes which, Rivera says, represent a form of feedback control in the context of behavioral health.

“For chronic, relapsing disorder such as substance abuse, there is significant interest among government and community agencies in keeping individuals on treatment, giving them the appropriate dosages of intervention components, and using limited resources more effectively,” he says.

“All of these considerations factor into what we want to accomplish — by using an engineering systems approach we want to improve the overall management and delivery of interventions.”

Rivera will also work with ASU’s Prevention Research Center (PRC) and the Center for Continuum of Care in the Addictions at the University of Pennsylvania to develop computational methodologies for the prevention and treatment of substance abuse and multiple co-occurring, associated disorders including HIV/AIDS and those related to mental health.

“(This) is an exciting new approach that we hope will enable us to assess when people are responding and when they are not, and if they are not responding what might be the most helpful next step,” says PRC director, Irwin Sandler.

In a second NIH-sponsored research endeavor funded by OBSSR, Rivera and Collins look at how behavioral interventions of all types — such as those aimed at HIV and AIDS prevention, obesity and cancer — can be optimized using control engineering strategies.

The four-year, $1.1 million research project involves a panel of eight behavioral intervention scientists who will aid Rivera in forming dynamical system models of behavioral interventions.

Once the intervention is modeled, control engineering methods such as internal model control and model predictive control can be applied.

The research goal is to develop computer-based tools for behavioral scientists that will allow them to model their chosen interventions as dynamical systems and apply system identification and control design techniques.

Rivera and Collins will also lay the groundwork for future application of control engineering principles for use in behavioral science.

“These grants encourage interdisciplinary research.NIH is very interested in having engineers, statisticians and computer scientists together with psychologists and physicians on these kinds of problems,” Rivera says. “It’s clearly meant to bring people together who otherwise would not be collaborating.”

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Fulton Schools

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