Duke Receives NIH Funds to Study Children with Autism and ADHD

Autism researchers

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.”

Young children with autism who also have ADHD are diagnosed with autism at a much later age and have poorer outcomes. 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.

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.

“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 (both pictured above), Duke investigators leading the projects include Linmarie Sikich, Guillermo Sapiro, Scott Compton, Kenneth Dodge, Naomi Davis and Michael Murias.

Originally posted on Duke Health. Dawson is chair of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) Faculty Governance Committee and a Bass Connections team leader.

A Joint Conversation with Chancellor Washington, Dean Broome and Provost Kornbluth


As part of a comprehensive strategic planning process that involved diverse groups of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and donors from across the university and medical enterprise, the name Duke Medicine is changing to Duke Health, Chancellor A. Eugene Washington, MD, MSc, announced in January. “The decision to update our name stems from widespread deliberations involving many groups within Duke, and signals the health system’s renewed focus on health improvement,” said Chancellor Washington. “Duke Health signals our intention to explore more comprehensive approaches to health that extend beyond medical care and into other areas of population health improvement. Duke Health also represents a more inclusive and synergistic approach to maximizing contributions to health improvement from the diverse array of disciplines and schools that comprise Duke University, as well as our external partners.”

When you think about aligning resources and creating synergies, what do you see as the major challenges for each area over the next three to five years?

Provost Kornbluth: I think the most important thing is to keep increasing faculty excellence. This means putting infrastructure and tools in the hands of the faculty to help them get the best out of their work, and offering the kind of mentoring and professional development that will enable them to be their best.

Chancellor Washington: Institutionally we’re quite vertical. Whether we’re in a nursing school or whether we’re in Trinity College, we’re vertical. So what we’re talking about in terms of drawing on the assets of Duke is actually being more horizontal. One of the significant challenges is getting our faculty, as collaborative and collegial as we are, working in groups in a more horizontal way. To overcome these barriers we need to show examples of where we’re already succeeding, and other areas that are ripe for some early victories.

As you bring these various perspectives together to create energy around this interdisciplinary work, how do you ensure that you’re getting the right people around the table?

Provost Kornbluth: We all took a very broad catchment area and opportunity for faculty involvement. On the campus side, we did this through many, many open faculty dinners. Anybody could give input— faculty, students, and staff—and that continues.

Chancellor Washington: In Duke Health, we similarly started with focus groups and then we eventually established working groups in each of the core mission areas: education, research, community health improvement, global health, and clinical care. But we didn’t feel that was enough. Based on input and the work of those small groups we developed a survey that went out to all 32,000 people in Duke Health. The response rate was encouraging. Over 10,000 individuals responded, and over 2,000 wrote written comments. I agree with Sally, the process from our perspective was as important as the outcome, because we tapped into the voices all across the organization—that’s where our talent, our greatest asset is.

Did you feel like you got a mandate, a clear directive?

Dean Broome: In education, I was amazed at how quickly people came to the priorities and what was important. There were fascinating discussions that I think influenced all of us in that room. We got a lot of diverse perspectives, but in some magical way it all came together around interdisciplinary education and professional development.

Chancellor Washington: Each of these groups developed a mission statement. And I can tell you they labored over every word. In fact, the education group labored over whether we are about education or learning. It was a rich discussion. I actually went to the dictionary to make the distinction. There was a true distinction, and it’s reflected in the overarching vision statement and the goals.

Read the full article on the Duke University School of Nursing website.

Duke Translational Medicine Institute Pilot Funding Program


Deadlines: Various

The DTRI Pilot Funding Program supports the development of novel methods and proof of concept evaluation of therapeutic agents, biomedical devices, diagnostic tests, and technologies.

The goal is to transform translational research by promoting basic and clinical investigator collaboration, offering project management assistance, and facilitating access to resources and expertise.

The Pilot Program includes several different funding mechanisms.

Learn More