Warren Bickel

Warren Bickel, PhD

Inaugural Holder, Virginia Tech Carilion Behavioral Health Research Professorship

Director, Addiction Recovery Research Center

Professor of Psychology, College of Science, Virginia Tech

Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine

People who are addicted to stimulants tend to choose instant gratification or a smaller but sooner reward over a future benefit, even if the future reward is greater. Reduced value of a future reward, called “delay discounting” by neuroscientists, is the major challenge for the treatment of addiction.

"The hope is for a new intervention to help addicts," says Warren Bickel, professor and director of the Addiction Recovery Research Center at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. Bickel is also a professor in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Tech.

Before joining the research institute in Roanoke, Bickel was the Wilbur D. Mills Chair of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Prevention and director of the Center for Addiction Research and the Center for the Study of Tobacco Addiction at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. While there, Bickel and his colleagues carried out studies showing that consideration and value of the future overlap with mental processes and brain regions associated with memory. The research team decided to test the possibility that increasing an individual's ability to remember would decrease the discounting of future events.

"In other words, we asked whether improved memory could result in a greater appreciation of a future reward," says Bickel, whose results from a series of experiments presented the happy answer of “yes.” "A change in discounting resulted from reinforced working memory training.”

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

At the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Bickel is continuing his research into delay discounting and addiction. Some of his recent studies have looked at questions such as if levels of impulsiveness and delay discounting can predict success in smoking cessation programs, how levels of delay discounting and training could benefit adolescents on their way to addiction recovery, and how being susceptible to one vice affects the ability to retain self-control when presented with others.

In another interesting study, Bickel and his colleagues are using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – an online crowdsourcing service – to quickly gain a sample size greater than previous studies. With nearly 1,000 responses in less than 24 hours, the results are showing that using online crowdsourcing can reproduce previous studies on delay discounting and smoking.

Although Bickel has already produced many fascinating results, many more questions remain.

Just how much can executive function training improve levels of delay discounting and help addicts overcome their inability to resist? How do addictions to smoking or cocaine compare to other forms of dependency such as sex or food addictions? How does a developing adolescent’s brain differ from adults more set in their neural pathways and what interventions might be able to help them more than their older peers? All of these questions and more are currently being studied in Bickel’s laboratory.

Bickel earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of New York New Paltz before getting both his master’s and doctoral degrees in developmental child psychology from the University of Kansas. He then completed postdoctoral fellowships at the University of North Carolina and the John Hopkins School of Medicine before taking up his previous position at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.