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Duke Receives $12.5 Million to Study Children With Autism and ADHD

NIH funds will be used to improve early screening, develop biomarkers and test therapies

Geraldine Dawson and Scott Kollins are principal investigators for the projects.

DURHAM, N.C. – Duke researchers will lead a $12.5 million, five-year program to study connections between autism and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joining five other universities as a National Institutes of Health Autism Center of Excellence.

Having both autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and ADHD can lead to more severe autism symptoms in young children, including tantrums, greater challenges at school and trouble making friends. There is little research on the estimated half of individuals with ASD who also have ADHD.

“Young children with autism who also have ADHD are diagnosed with autism at a much later age and have poorer outcomes,” said Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., a co-principal investigator for the grant and director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. “Children with both conditions are 30 times more likely to receive a diagnosis of autism after age 6, which is a shame because we are able to diagnose autism reliably by 24 months. We want to understand why these children are being missed and help them get early interventions.”

Duke researchers across disciplines -- including psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, engineering, computer science and public policy -- will launch three major projects designed to improve early detection and treatment of children with autism and ADHD.

The first project will follow about 9,000 infants and toddlers visiting Duke primary care clinics to identify those with symptoms of ASD, ADHD, or both. They will compare symptoms, progression and overall health outcomes, and test new screening tools. They will also probe racial and ethnic disparities in early diagnosis and strategies to reduce them.

A second effort will focus on understanding how brain dysfunction in ASD and ADHD are similar and how they differ. Researchers aim to identify signatures in brain activity or attention-related biomarkers that could predict risk for autism and ADHD in infancy.

The third project will evaluate a treatment that combines behavioral intervention and the use of Adzenys-XR-ODT, an FDA-approved ADHD drug. The researchers will study how the combined treatment affects autism and ADHD symptoms and patterns of brain activity.

“This research has the potential to significantly impact clinical practice,” said Scott Kollins, Ph.D., co-principal investigator for the grant and director of the Duke ADHD Program. “We hope it will validate new approaches to early screening, specifically in pediatric primary care. It will also provide many children in North Carolina who have autism and ADHD with diagnostic and treatment services. We are grateful to NIH and to Duke for providing the opportunity to make a real difference both for families in our community and families everywhere.”

Data from Duke and all other Autism Centers of Excellence are included in a centralized NIH National Database for Autism Research, available to scientists and institutions around the world working to uncover the causes and develop the best treatments for ASD. 

In addition to Dawson and Kollins, investigators leading the projects include Linmarie Sikich, Guillermo Sapiro, Scott Compton, Kenneth Dodge, Naomi Davis and Michael Murias. 


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