Ringing up subjects to collect real-time data


“We hope what we learn from this study will help us develop strategies to reduce the risk of substance abuse in vulnerable young adults who use both malt liquor and legal or illegal drugs,” says R. Lorraine Collins.

U. BUFFALO (US)—An automated voice system is helping researchers collect data via cell phone from participants enrolled in studies on alcohol, marijuana, and the situational factors that surround their use.

R. Lorraine Collins, a health behavior researcher at the University at Buffalo, devised this simpler and more efficient way of collecting data by adapting an earlier method that depended on Palm Pilots and other personal digital assistants, or PDAs.

She currently is using this cell-phone-based interactive voice response technology, or IVR, to investigate whether physical activity can help decrease marijuana use by young adults. She’ll also analyze moods, motives, and social factors in study participants who use malt liquor and other substances, in combination or separately.

Collins has been studying various aspects of substance abuse for more than 20 years, particularly psychosocial, personality, and environmental factors associated with alcohol abuse, drug use, and problem behaviors in young adults.

“This is an interesting and useful way to collect data,” says Collins. “It eliminates the problems associated with study participants having to recall their behavior, and cell phones are ubiquitous with young people, who are our main targets in these studies. We capture their data right away. It’s all computerized and stored immediately.”

The study on exercise and marijuana use will investigate the potential of regular physical activity or exercise to serve as a positive alternative to drug use among 18-25 year olds who smoke marijuana a minimum of twice a week.

“The goal is to reduce their marijuana use and associated negative consequences that can range from changes in reaction time (which could affect driving) to respiratory problems, neurocognitive problems and lower academic achievement,” says Collins.

Researchers will examine whether the intensity of exercise affects participants’ marijuana craving, their intent to use and actual use, and if—and how much—exercising with or without a marijuana-smoking friend affects their craving over 24 hours and up to seven days.

Each study will be conducted for 14 days, and will collect detailed and real-time data through automated cell phone calls and from accelerometers, which participants will wear to register their level of physical activity.

“We expect that the knowledge gained from this study will foster the development of more useful strategies for preventing and treating marijuana use and abuse,” says Collins.

The malt liquor study will use the same cell phone data-collection method to study the role of moods, motives and the influence of friends during social situations in young adults using alcohol and other substances, separately or at the same time.

“Malt liquor is a unique, high-alcohol-content (6-11 percent alcohol by volume) ‘beer’ that is packaged in large 40 oz. containers and marketed to promote excessive drinking,” explains Collins. “Its low price and ready availability appeals to vulnerable populations, such as young adults and persons who live in minority and low-income urban communities, and other substances also are readily available in these communities.”

The researchers will study personality characteristics and negative emotions in participants, as well as their beliefs, expectations, motives and the influence of peers.

“The results from 21 days of reports from participants should provide greater understanding of the role of factors in the situation (e.g., location, activities, participants’ moods) that are associated with the use of multiple substances,” notes Collins. “We hope what we learn from this study will help us develop strategies to reduce the risk of substance abuse in vulnerable young adults who use both malt liquor and legal or illegal drugs.”

The research is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

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