Research Spotlights: November 2018

research spotlight

Behavioral risk markers for ADHD appear early in child development

Younger siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are at greater risk for ASD and other developmental concerns. A recent NIMH- and NICHD-funded study identified behavior and temperament problems at 36 months in this population that later predicted ADHD diagnoses. Participants (n = 59) at low and high risk for ASD were recruited before 18 months of age and periodically assessed until 36 months of age. Infants were administered eye-tracking tasks, parents reported concerns, and external examiners reported ADHD behaviors including inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. A follow-up visit between ages 8–11 years assessed behavioral and intellectual functioning and confirmed ADHD diagnoses. At follow-up, 17 participants were diagnosed with ADHD (14 high risk, 3 low risk). As infants, sustained visual attention was stagnant in those later diagnosed with ADHD compared to the increased look time in typically developing (TD) infants. By 36 months of age, 50 percent of parents from the ADHD group reported behavior/temperament concerns compared to only 13 percent of parents in the TD group. Examiners also reported more ADHD-related behaviors at 18, 24, and 36 months of age in the ADHD group. Accurately identifying behavioral indices of risk for later ADHD diagnosis will aid early detection and treatment for at risk children.


Miller M, Iosif AM, Young GS, Hill MM, Ozonoff S. 2018. Early detection of ADHD: insights from infant siblings of children with autism. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol 47(5):737-744.

Brain anatomy and psychological traits may predict who responds to placebos

Placebo effects are widely reported but understanding how they work and who will favorably respond is not clear. But a new NCCIH-funded study indicates certain personality traits and distinctive brain features can predict a patient’s positive placebo response. Over six visits in 8 weeks, 20 chronic back pain (CBP) patients received no treatment and 43 CBP patients received a sugar pill that they did not know was a placebo. Repeat brain imaging sessions were used to identify functional networks prior to placebo exposure, during, and after exposure. Neuropsychological testing was used to identify factors that predispose patients to placebo response. Patients rated back pain intensity twice daily via a smartphone app and underwent pain questionnaires during visits. Just over half of patients receiving the placebo reported a 30 percent decrease in pain intensity. Individuals whose pain decreased because of the placebo had similar brain anatomy and psychological traits. They showed differences in subcortical limbic volume asymmetry, sensorimotor cortical thickness, and functional coupling in prefrontal regions, anterior cingulate cortex, and periaqueductal gray. Individuals who responded to placebo were more emotionally aware, attuned to pain, and mindful of their environment. A greater understanding of placebo effects and who would benefit from them may provide certain chronic pain sufferers with new approaches to pain relief.


Vachon-Presseau E, Berger SE, Abdullah TB, Huang L, Cecchi GA, Griffith JW, Schnitzer TJ, Apkarian AV. 2018. Brain and psychological determinants of placebo pill response in chronic pain patients. Nat Commun 9(1):3397.

The health of those in your social networks impacts your own health

Researchers funded by NICHD and NINDS recently created a quantitative social network assessment tool that found unhealthy behaviors in an individual’s social network are associated with that individual’s self-reported neurological disability. The open access network analysis tool, adapted from the General Social Survey, maps individual personal networks, including the strength of the relations between people and their health behaviors, including exercise, smoking, and doctor’s visits. In this study, 1,493 people at risk for multiple sclerosis (MS) from the Genes and Environment in Multiple Sclerosis Project (GEMS) completed a questionnaire assessing their neurological disability (e.g., ability to walk, use hands, and speak) and a questionnaire of about 48 questions assessing their social network. The average network consisted of eight people who were densely linked, and 44 percent of all network members were family. Seventeen percent of participants had completely healthy networks, but 33 percent of network members did not exercise. When comparing health behaviors of social networks with individual’s functional disability, the study found those in social networks of people with more negative health behaviors had worse self-reported disability. This highlights the importance of considering the healthy or unhealthy lifestyles in an individual’s surrounding and their influence on functioning.


Dhand A, White CC, Johnson C, Xia Z, DeJager PL. 2018. A scalable online tool for quantitative social network assessment reveals potentially modifiable social environmental risks. Nat Commun 9(1): 3930.