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UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care
Research Department of Behavioural Science and Health

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Expertise

Apart from topical knowledge, the Department of Behavioural Science and Health has a wide range of methodological skills and expertise, including the following:

expertise

Behaviour change theory

The Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group works closely with the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change in developing and applying behaviour change theories.

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Behaviour change training

The Obesity research group and Energy Balance in Cancer research group, in collaboration with the charity Weight Concern, have run numerous courses on behaviour change and have extensive experience of delivering behaviour change interventions in a variety of settings and populations. Our courses are practical and skills-based and targeted primarily at health professionals.  They include behavioural and CBT approaches to adult obesity and family-based behavioural management of childhood obesity, specialist weight management programmes for adults and young people with learning disabilities, and healthy lifestyle programmes for adults that have been through treatment for cancer. For more information see the Weight Concern page.

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Behaviour genetics

Behaviour genetics studies the contribution of genes and environment to individual differences in behaviour, using family and twin studies, and molecular genetic approaches. We have expertise in analysing genetically sensitive cohort data (e.g. family and twin studies), and developing genetic risk scores for complex traits. 

The Obesity research group established and runs Gemini: the largest population-based twin birth cohort ever set up to study genetic end environmental influence on paediatric growth, and weight-related behaviours. We are one of the only research groups in the world combining twin data and molecular genetic methods to advance our understanding of the genetic basis of body weight, appetite regulation, energy intake and food preferences. For more information please see the Obesity research group pages (Gemini and Twins Early Development Study (TEDS)).

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Clinical methods

We use clinical samples to study disease processes in patients with physical illnesses such as coronary heart disease and diabetes. For example, the ARCS study looked at participants before and after coronary artery bypass graft surgery and the TRACE study recruited myocardial infarction patients. Methods specific to this approach include electrocardiogram readings, angiogram results, and blood test results taken as part of patient's clinical care e.g. C-reactive protein and troponin. These results are used to develop a risk profile of patients and when combined with some of the other methods we use, e.g. questionnaires, can provide insight into the psychobiology of coronary heart disease. For more information, please see the Psychobiology group pages.

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Development and testing of interventions

We apply psychological theory to develop evidence-based interventions to change health behaviours. For example, we have used exposure-reward paradigms to improve vegetable acceptance in infancy and early childhood (Tiny TastesTASTE, part of HaBEAT) and Control Theory to improve dietary and activity behaviours in pregnant women with obesity. 

We have applied habit theory in intervention studies within primary care for adult weight management (Ten Top Tips) and also community settings to improve parent feeding behaviours (Poppets). We are currently adapting this to improve the dietary habits of preschool children (Tips for Tots) and we are also running a large randomised controlled trial to test the effectiveness of habit based advice for improving the health behaviours of individuals with a diagnosis of breast, prostate or colorectal cancer . For more information please see the Obesity and the Energy Balance and Cancer research group pages.

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Digital behaviour change interventions

The Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group develops and evaluates websites and mobile applications aimed at supporting behaviour change, particularly smoking cessation and alcohol reduction. More information about our digital behaviour change interventions can be found in our book, available from the Centre for Behaviour Change bookshop (link opens in new window).

The Obesity and Energy Balance and Cancer Research Groups are interested in the potential for digital technologies to support behaviour change. This includes developing and evaluating novel mobile phone applications, and exploring the use of virtual reality and gaming communities to promote engagement in positive health behaviours. For more information please see the Obesity Research Group and the Energy Balance and Cancer Research Group pages.

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Epidemiological methods

The use of epidemiological methods allows us to test hypotheses in large-scale samples of participants such as ELSA and Whitehall. Longitudinal statistical analysis techniques are an important part of this method which allow us to assess the temporal association between variables. Temporal precedence is one way in which we can test the cause and effect relationship between variables of interest such as depression causing coronary heart disease or vice versa.  For more information, please see the Psychobiology and Energy Balance and Cancer Research Group pages.

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Interview and questionnaire methods

We use a combination of standard questionnaire measures, newly developed measures, and interview techniques to assess the psychological and social experience of participants in our studies. The measures vary between studies, but include assessments of work stress, social networks and supports, psychological coping, anger and hostility, sense of control, health behaviour, self-efficacy, risk awareness, financial strain, quality of life and self-rated health. We have developed a measure of neighbourhood problems to assess day-to-day strain in people's local environments, as well as measures of eating behaviour and cancer knowledge and awareness, which can be downloaded from our Questionnaires page. For more information about these methods, please see the Psychobiology and Cancer Screening group pages.

The Obesity Research Group has developed and validated a number of psychometric measures related to appetite and diet, including the Baby Eating Behaviour Questionnaire (BEBQ), Children’s Eating Behaviour Questionnaire (CEBQ; and a toddler version, the CEBQ-T), Adult Eating Behaviour Questionnaire (AEBQ), Child Food Preferences Questionnaire, Adult Food Preferences Questionnaire, Parental Feeding Style Questionnaire, Nutrition Knowledge Questionnaire, Self-Regulation of Eating Behaviour Questionnaire. These questionnaires can be found on the Eating behaviour questionnaires page.

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Laboratory methods

We use laboratory methods to test the influence of stress and other psychological factors on biological responses. These studies involve assessing patients or healthy people individually in the laboratory, measuring biological variables in response to challenging mental tasks, physical exercise, and other stimuli. A wide range of biological variables are measured, including blood pressure, heart rate and heart rate variability, cardiac output and total peripheral vascular resistance, cortisol, insulin, glucose, cholesterol and its sub-fractions, immune cells such as natural killer cells, cytokines including interleukin-6 and tumour necrosis factor alpha, cytokine gene expression, fibrinogen, von Willebrand factor, factor VIII, plasma viscosity, and blood platelet activation. We are also using these methods to explore the impact of diet-induced weight loss on biological variables relevant to the development of cancer. For more information, please see the Energy Balance and Cancer research group, Obesity research group, and Psychobiology group pages.

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Measurement of eating behaviour and appetite

As well as the questionnaires listed under the interview and questionnaire methods section, we use a variety of methods to measure eating behaviour and appetite regulation objectively in children and adults. We use laboratory-, school- and home-based measures to assess satiety sensitivity (‘fullness’), food cue responsiveness, eating rate, food preferences and energy intake. We measure dietary intake using diet diaries, food frequency questionnaires and dietary recalls. For more information please see the Obesity Research Group and the Energy Balance and Cancer research group pages.

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Naturalistic or ambulatory methods

These methods primarily involve the measurement of biological responses in everyday life. The principle techniques that we use include the Day Reconstruction Method (DRM), ambulatory blood pressure monitoring with repeated measurement over the day using non-invasive portable blood pressure monitoring devices, and measurements of cortisol from saliva samples. These biological assessments are accompanied by diary ratings of location, physical activity, mood and social activity. For more information, please see the Psychobiology group pages.

We are also using Ecological Momentary Assessments (EMA) to capture participants’ experiences, behaviours and psychological responses in real time.  For more information, please see the Energy Balance and Cancer research group pages.

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Qualitative methods

The Department has a strong history of using qualitative research methods, including methods such as Wengraf’s Biographical Narrative Interview Method, thematic analysis, framework analysis, content analysis, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), and qualitative synthesis, such as thematic synthesis and meta-ethnography. 

The Department has an active qualitative discussion group which was set up in May 2012 to consolidate expertise with qualitative methods for researchers contemplating, initiating, conducting, and disseminating qualitative research within the department. The group continues to grow and currently has 53 members, including colleagues external to the HBRC. The monthly sessions vary in content, often including discussion of a paper, dilemmas or feedback on analysis, and external speakers introducing new methods or concepts in qualitative research.  Meetings are organised by Lesley McGregor: l.mcgregor[at]ucl.ac.uk.

This discussion group is part of UCL's Qualitative Health Research Network (QHRN), a cross-faculty collaboration of qualitative researchers at UCL.  The QHRN organise quarterly seminars and biennial international symposia about qualitative methods in health research. For more information about qualitative methods, please see the Cancer Screening group pages.

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Randomised controlled trials

The Energy Balance and Cancer and Obesity research groups have considerable experience in designing and running randomised controlled trials of behavioural interventions. We work closely with a number of Clinical Trials Units, including the Cancer Research UK & UCL Cancer Trials Centre and PRIMENT. In addition, our charity Weight Concern provides lay representation for Trial Steering committees.

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Statistical methods

The Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group has expertise in a wide range of statistical methods, including Bayesian analysis, time series and multi-level modelling.

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Survey development

The Department has extensive experience with survey development. Examples include the following:

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