Meet the Researcher: Nancy Petry, UConn School of Medicine

Nancy Petry, professor of medicine at UConn Health. (Tina Encarnacion/UConn Photo)
Nancy Petry, professor of medicine at UConn Health. (Tina Encarnacion/UConn Photo)

Throughout her career, professor of medicine at UConn Health, Nancy Petry has pioneered new areas of research in the field of behavioral psychology with one goal in mind – improving outcomes for patients.

“As a scientist, it is exciting to see my research translated into solutions for patients, not only for treating addictions, but also to improve patient adherence for other medical conditions.”

Since joining UConn Health in 1996, Petry has won over $41 million in external funding, making her one of the most active and highly funded researchers across all campuses. A thought leader and internationally recognized expert in behavioral psychology, Petry has experienced many research firsts.

For instance, in 2000, she received the first federally funded grant for treating gambling problems, an issue that Connecticut is uniquely positioned to address given that the state is home to the world’s largest casino.

More recently in 2017, the National Institutes of Health awarded Petry and colleagues funding for the first ever grant for treating video gaming problems in youth.  This led to the first NIH-funded clinical trial to help parents with their child’s video game addiction.

“The study tests the benefits of a family therapy approach, with one or both parents and the child participating. Parents are coached on how to better understand what gaming addiction is, why their child derives pleasure from the activity, and the best ways to monitor and intervene to reduce their child’s gaming,” says Petry. “There are no other such studies in the U.S. to our knowledge, and only a handful of studies in Europe and Southeast Asia have evaluated interventions.”

As a member of the American Psychiatric Association’s Workgroup on Substance Use and Related Addictive Disorders, Petry led international efforts to include online gaming addiction as a condition requiring greater research in the latest version of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).

“Initially recruited to UConn Health and our Alcohol Research Center for her expertise in behavioral interventions, particularly contingency management, Nancy has had a wonderful career trajectory and built a spectacular program of research,” says Victor Hesselbrock, senior associate dean of research and professor of psychiatry in UConn’s School of Medicine. “Nancy has a well-deserved national and international reputation and continues to make important contributions to the university and to the scientific community. We are incredibly lucky to have her at UConn.”

Petry’s research and treatment interventions have been employed with patients with a range of addictive behaviors, such as substance abuse. These studies are conducted in community-based treatment clinics, from InterCommunity in Hartford to Recovery Network of Programs in Bridgeport,   and include patients with opioid, stimulant, and alcohol use disorders. Petry tests novel methods to assess and reinforce abstinence in the natural environment as well as new biological assays and technologies to detect substance using behaviors. Her group is also working with health disparities populations who are disproportionately impacted by substance use including the homeless and the unemployed.

Based on the evidence of her intervention, the Veterans Administration is now implementing it nationwide. Thousands of veterans are receiving reinforcers to boost their ability to abstain from addictive behaviors. Countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, Europe and China, are also using this approach to improve treatment of substance use disorder and related conditions such as HIV and hepatitis. With the opioid epidemic, potential applications exist to prevent problems and overdose in high-risk groups.