Research Funding

Funding opportunities for psychologists at the National Institute on Aging

NIA supports research on development across the life course.

By Lisbeth Nielsen, Jonathan W. King, and Melissa Gerald

Lisbeth NielsenJonathan W. KingMelissa Gerald

L-R: Lisbeth Nielsen, Jonathan W. King and Melissa Gerald

The Division of Behavioral and Social Research (BSR) at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) supports social, behavioral, and economic research and research training on the processes of aging at both the individual and societal level. Its basic and translational research agenda spans multiple levels, from genetics to cross-national comparative research. The majority of psychological research at NIA is supported by BSR’s Individual Behavioral Processes Branch (IBP), whose programs include aging-relevant research and training on: health and behavior, cognitive and emotional functioning, technology and human factors, and integrative approaches to the study of social, psychological, genetic and physiological influences on health and well-being. In collaboration with BSR’s Population and Social Processes Branch (PSP), IBP engages in research bridging laboratory and survey science, and research at the intersection of psychology and economics. In 2012, IBP provided over $75 million in extramural funding for psychological and behavioral science of relevance to aging.

Although NIA’s mission focuses on the health and well-being of older adults, NIA also recognizes that many factors that affect successful aging operate earlier in the life course. It is now well understood that the psychology of aging must move beyond traditional young-old comparisons and look at trajectories over the life course, including a closer examination of middle-aged populations, where some interventions targeting behaviors or conditions that would have adverse effects at older ages may be more effective. BSR has recently co-funded longitudinal follow-up of cohorts followed from birth (e.g., the Dunedin Longitudinal Study) and adolescence (e.g., AddHealth) that are now entering midlife, so that earlier life influences on aging can be comprehensively examined. IBP/BSR is currently developing a high priority initiative in collaboration with the UK Economic and Social Research Council exploring the potential for mid-life reversibility of early-established biobehavioral risk factors, especially those linked to adverse social environmental exposures in early life.

The five programs within IBP support interrelated aging-relevant research agendas. The Cognitive Aging program, directed by Jonathan W. King, supports research on changes in cognitive functioning over the life course and how those changes drive changes in activities of daily living, social relationships and health status. Outcomes of relevance include problem-solving, decision-making, consumer behavior and driving. Two especially active research foci are the development of interventions to improve everyday function through the remediation of age-related cognitive decline (see RFA-AG-09-009) and exploration of how transfer of training could drive functional improvement. This program also collaborates with the NIA’s Division of Neuroscience on projects of joint interest (especially cognitive interventions) and has been a co-sponsor of the two Cognitive Aging Summits in 2007 and 2010.

A program on Psychological Development and Integrative Science (PDI), led by Lisbeth Nielsen, supports aging-relevant research in multiple domains of affective science, including projects that examine reciprocal interactions across levels of analysis (neurobiological, physiological, psychological, behavioral, social). Recent attention has focused on individual differences in motivation, self-regulation, conscientiousness and self-control, and their links to important life course outcomes, including educational attainment, health behaviors and longevity. Of considerable interest are new investigations focused on understanding the mechanisms accounting for the surprising predictive value of conscientiousness. A series of meetings (see reports: "teleconference" and "workshop") and an upcoming special issue of Developmental Psychology, co-edited by David Reiss, Jacquelynne Eccles and Lisbeth Nielsen, are intended to stimulate the next generation of research on personality in a life course perspective and the development of personality-informed interventions to promote successful aging.

BSR encourages research (see, for example, the topics mentioned in  RFA-AG-11-003) advancing the measurement of subjective well-being, examining which aspects or dimensions of well-being best characterize or promote healthy aging, and investigating how to intervene on these factors to reduce suffering among midlife and older adults. Emerging research suggests that different aspects of well-being may have distinct physiological correlates. To explore some of these questions, IBP recently co-sponsored a workshop on Positive Psychobiology, funded by the Princeton Roybal Center for Research on Experience and Wellbeing, to examine the role of restorative biological processes in health.

Melissa Gerald, who recently joined IBP, manages the Family and Interpersonal Relationships program, which examines the role of social interactions in aging, both in human and animal models, and the impact of social relationships on health, from both a psychological and biological perspective. Focused on family and interpersonal relationships at an individual and dyadic level, this portfolio strives to identify the interpersonal mechanisms and processes that support healthy aging (see PA-11-128). With a research background in the evolution of social behavior and communication in primates, Gerald aims to expand the scope of this program to include comparative studies across a broad range of environmental contexts, to characterize normative behaviors, evaluate promising models and gain mechanistic insight into biological mediators of relationships between social interactions and health and well-being.   

Genetic and genomic research is an integral part of many of the research areas in BSR. King manages IBP’s Behavior Genetics portfolio, with support from two staff contractors, Jennifer Harris and David Reiss, who collectively bring expertise in twin research, family designs and life course genetics to understand how genetic and genomic influences link social, psychological and behavioral processes with health and well-being over the life course. The program supports research on the genetics and genomics of social behaviors and the influence of social environments, on how life experiences influence gene expression through signaling pathways and epigenetic modification of the genome, and how genes influence the selection of environment. Approaches of interest include quantitative and molecular genetic analysis; epigenetic and gene expression studies; discordant twin designs, among others. A notable opportunity in this area is provided by the recent genotyping (2.5M SNPs) of over 12,000 participants in the Health and Retirement Study, which collects rich social, behavioral, economic and cognitive phenotype data from a probability sample of U.S. adults over the age of 50 and their spouses (see PA-11-318 for additional information).

Finally, a program on Behavioral Medicine and Interventions, currently managed by all of IBP staff, supports research on mechanisms of behavior change and novel approaches to engaging midlife and older adults in adaptive health behaviors. Of particular interest are programs that incorporate insights from emerging areas of basic behavioral and social science. Many of BSR’s behavioral interventions build on advances in behavioral economics (see also RFA-AG-10-008) and cognitive science, including several projects funded through NIA’s Roybal Centers. Others take advantage of links to community organizations to promote independent living among older adults (including PA-11-123).

Ongoing efforts, both within NIA and in collaboration with the trans-NIH Science of Behavior Change and OppNet initiatives, are also undertaken with an eye to considering the next generation of interventions to support adaptive aging, which also includes successfully managing age-related challenges of retirement, unemployment, disability, caregiving, bereavement and social isolation. For example, BSR recently sponsored a National Academy of Sciences expert meeting to explore how a contemporary understanding of motivation can help understand differences between those who succumb to challenges in adulthood and those who do not, and inform novel behavioral interventions in midlife and beyond

Supporting these efforts is BSR’s Research Program Analyst, Farheen Akbar, who provides consultation on IBP’s health disparities and SBIR initiatives and generates resources for applicants on BSR’s website.

The authors are program officials at the National Institute on Aging.