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Hitsman Lab

Hitsman Lab Members
The Hitsman Lab (Nicotine Dependent & Treatment Lab), led by principal investigator Brian L. Hitsman, PhD, conducts NIH-funded clinical and human laboratory research to improve the treatment of nicotine dependence in high-tobacco-burden populations. These special populations smoke at high rates, experience low quit rates and have limited access to effective treatments.

Our clinical trial work focuses on modifying the delivery of evidence-based treatment to increase reach (e.g., telephone-based treatment) and effectiveness (e.g., extended duration treatment) and evaluating novel targeted interventions that combine psychological and pharmacological therapies.

In addition to our interest in smoking cessation, we examine the effects of smoking cessation on psychological and cardiovascular health. Our human laboratory studies are concerned with identifying psychological and neurobiological factors that maintain smoking and nicotine dependence.

 Current Projects

Testing Novel Pharmacogenetic and Adherence Optimization Treatments to Improve the Effectiveness of Smoking Cessation Treatments for Smokers with HIV

The purpose of this study, conducted at Northwestern and the University of Pennsylvania, is to evaluate whether personalized pharmacotherapy and specialized medication adherence counseling can improve smoking cessation treatment for persons living with HIV. We will randomize 340 smokers with a confirmed HIV diagnosis to receive 12 weeks of: 1) Non-personalized medication treatment (varenicline for all) and standard behavioral counseling and adherence advice (Standard Treatment Arm, or 2) NMR-personalized medication treatment (varenicline for fast metabolizers and nicotine patch for slow metabolizers) and standard behavioral counseling and MAPS (Pharmacogenetic Optimization and Adherence Optimization Arm).

Sign up for the study by visiting or call 312-503-3035.


Behavioral Activation and Varenicline for Smoking Cessation in Depressed Smokers

The overall goal of this double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial, conducted at Northwestern and the University of Pennsylvania, is to evaluate the efficacy and safety of behavioral activation plus varenicline for treating nicotine dependence in smokers with current/recent major depressive disorder. Six hundred and thirty smokers with at least mild depression symptoms will be randomized to receive 12 weeks of one of four treatments: standard behavior therapy + placebo, behavioral activation for smoking cessation + placebo, standard behavior therapy + varenicline or bhavioral activation for smoking cessation + varenicline.


Menthol Cigarette Use, Tobacco Dependence and Cognition

The purpose of this study is to examine how cigarette smoking relates to nicotine dependence and cognition. The study will include one in-person visit lasting between 2.5-3 hours at our lab at Northwestern University in downtown Chicago. The study involves providing breath and saliva samples to assess recent smoking behavior; filling out questionnaires on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; and completing computer tasks that measure cognitive functioning, including attention, memory, and motor control. Participants are also asked to smoke one of their own preferred cigarettes through a handheld device in our laboratory room. Individuals are not required to stop smoking for this study.


Extended Varenicline Treatment for Smoking Among Cancer Patients

Individuals diagnosed with cancer tend to smoke at much higher rates than the general population. Moreover, fewer than 50 percent of these individuals are able to quit smoking or stay quit after being diagnosed. Using a double-blind placebo-controlled design involving 374 cancer patients at Northwestern and the University of Pennsylvania, this study aims to compare standard varenicline treatment (12 weeks) to extended varenicline treatment (24 weeks) for increasing week 24 and week 52 biochemically-confirmed seven-day point prevalence abstinence. All participants also receive brief behavior therapy administered both in-person and via telephone.

If you’re interested in participating, please email or call 1-877-236-7487. Learn more about the trial.

COPD and Well-Being Study

Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) experience rates of depression and anxiety that are up to 10 times higher than those in the general population. Further, COPD is triggered primarily by cigarette smoking, and many patients continue to smoke following diagnosis, indicating high levels of nicotine dependence. Characterizing shared mechanisms that underlie emotional distress and nicotine dependence may shed light on key risk factors that can be assessed in the course of clinical care for COPD and modified by targeted intervention. In the current study, we will assess relations between three theory-based psychological risk factors (i.e., anxiety sensitivity, distress intolerance, and anhedonia) and patient-reported and clinical outcomes among COPD patients. This study will be the first to our knowledge to examine shared psychological risk factors underlying comorbid conditions among COPD patients.

Targeting Depression and Nicotine Dependence to Promote Cardiovascular Health

Concurrent depression and nicotine dependence can synergistically increase risk for cardiovascular disease, but whether individuals can synergistically reduce cardiovascular disease risk through simultaneous treatment of these conditions is unknown. Therefore, the overall objective of this project is to assess whether simultaneous depression remission and smoking cessation synergistically improve cardiovascular health using two methodologies. First, we will use the Coronary Artery Risk Development In Young Adults (CARDIA) study, a community-based, biracial longitudinal study following 5,115 individuals over 25 years. Second, this project will evaluate the same relationship within the framework of the clinical trial of smoking cessation in depressed smokers.

Distress Tolerance and Smoking Lapse Among Motivated Versus Unmotivated Smokers

The purpose of this study is to examine how smoking behavior and motivation to quit smoking relate to individual differences in personality. The study will include two visits: a one-hour initial session and a three-hour lab session about a week later. At the lab session, you will be asked to not smoke six hours immediately prior to this session. The study involves providing breath samples to assess recent smoking behavior; filling out questionnaires on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; and completing laboratory tasks that measure personality traits and smoking behavior.

Learn more and sign up to participate.

Reducing Tobacco Use Disparities Among Adults in Safety Net Community Health Centers

This two-group randomized controlled trial is evaluating the effectiveness of a population health management intervention for increasing state quitline treatment access, engagement, utilization, and cessation versus usual clinic-based care alone in 550 low-income smokers. The theory-based intervention to be evaluated in this study, named Choose to Change, will be automated via the electronic health record (EHR) system and involve the following components: mailed letter outreach and automated text or voice messaging that is targeted to low-income smokers who are not yet ready to quit; proactive quitline treatment (counseling and nicotine patch, gum or lozenge using a flexible quit date paradigm); and treatment utilization and outcomes feedback provided by the Illinois Tobacco Quitline direct to the EHR system.

Learn more about the trial.

 Research Training

Clinical Psychology Doctoral Training

Hitsman is a mentor for the Behavioral Medicine emphasis in the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Clinical Psychology Doctoral program. He is interested in working with students with interest and experience in the areas of nicotine dependence and smoking cessation, clinical trials, biological and behavioral mechanisms of addiction, smoking cessation in healthcare settings and comorbid psychological and medical disease.

If you are interested in applying to the program, please see the Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program website.

Undergraduate Research Training

We are seeking interns interested in clinical and health psychology to help conduct the day-to-day tasks of running clinical trials. Minimum requirement of 10 hours per week. Position is located at the Chicago (medical) campus. Specific duties include:

  1. Phone calls: Conducting initial telephone eligibility screening and scheduling; obtaining medical clearance when candidates present with specific medical conditions. Completing reminder calls for upcoming sessions.
  2. Scanning: All participant data into MS Access database and completing data quality assurance checks per study protocol.
  3. Assisting participants in completing study questionnaires.
  4. Preparing/maintaining protocol materials and participant study charts.
  5. Assisting with biological sample collection, storage and shipment.

If you would like to apply, please email your resume or CV and contact information to

 Smoking Cessation Resources

In-Person Smoking Cessation Programs

Illinois Tobacco Quitline (American Lung Association)
Free, unlimited counseling and (if eligible) free medication
Illinois Phone: 1-866-QUIT-YES or 1-866-784-8937
National Line: 1-800-QUIT-NOW or 1-855-DEJELO-YA for Spanish speakers

Courage to Quit Programs

Courage to Quit
University of Chicago: 773-702-6685; 773-702-6181
Northwest Community Hospital Group: 847-618-7992
Skokie Health Department: 847-933-8252

Online Smoking Cessation Programs

Smoking Cessation Information & Resources

Our Team

Brian Hitsman, PhD

Brian Hitsman, PhD

Principal Investigator

Please see Hitsman’s faculty profile.

Nancy Jao, MS

Nancy Jao, MS

Graduate Student

Nancy is a graduate student in the clinical psychology PhD program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine with a clinical and research emphasis in behavioral medicine. Nancy completed her BS in psychology and molecular and cellular biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). During college, she conducted research on PTSD with Dr. Howard Berenbaum at UIUC as well as on cognition and perception with Dr. Steve Franconeri at Northwestern University. Prior to graduate school, she also worked full time as a research specialist in Dr. Kenneth Perkins's Nicotine Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, studying nicotine dependence and smoking cessation. Nancy joined the Hitsman Lab in the fall of 2013 and currently serves as a research assistant and therapist on the study examining behavioral activation for smoking cessation for smokers with major depressive disorder. Her research interests include health psychology, nicotine dependence, biological mechanisms and chronic disease.

Matthew Olonoff

Matthew Olonoff

Graduate Student

Matthew is a graduate student in the clinical psychology PhD program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine with an emphasis in behavioral medicine. He completed his BA in economics at Cornell University and then went on to complete his MA in clinical psychology at Columbia University. Prior to attending Northwestern, he worked as a research assistant for Katherine Shear, MD, at The Center for Complicated Grief, and more recently as a research coordinator at the Substance Treatment and Research Services at Columbia University Medical Center. As research coordinator, Matthew supervised trials on behavioral mechanisms and pharmacological interventions for various substance use disorders. His research interests include addressing comorbidities with substance use and treatment interventions to address health disparities for tobacco smokers.

Elizabeth Klass, RN, BSN

Elizabeth Klass, RN, BSN

Tobacco Treatment Specialist

Liz Klass joined the Department of Preventive Medicine and the Hitsman Lab in January 2019. She is a treatment provider in the Lurie Tobacco Cessation Program, a NCI Cancer Moonshot initiative that integrates tobacco cessation services within the Supportive Oncology Department in Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Prior to joining the Northwestern community, she worked a clinical research nurse in the Movement Disorders Clinic at Rush University Medical Center. She hails from St. Louis, Missouri, where she graduated from Barnes-Jewish Goldfarb School of Nursing.

Erica Fox, BS

Senior Research Study Coordinator

Erica Fox is the Senior Research Study Coordinator on the Optimizing Tobacco Use Treatment for People Living with HIV/AIDS study. She earned her BS in psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While there, she assisted on a study investigating the relationship between health behaviors, hippocampal health and academic performance. Erica ultimately plans to pursue a graduate degree in clinical psychology and has interests in neural mechanisms, chronic illness and health disparities in substance use treatment.

Contact Us

Interested in participating in one of our studies? We are recruiting participants who want to quit smoking, as well as those who do not want to quit at this time.

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