He used his scale to study the effects of stimulant drugs on hyperactive children. Doctors had known since the 1930s that amphetamines could, paradoxically, calm such youngsters; a Rhode Island doctor, Charles Bradley, had published a well-known report detailing striking improvements in attention and academic performance among many children at a children’s inpatient home he ran near Providence. But it was a series of rigorous studies by Dr. Conners, in the 1960s and ’70s, that established stimulants — namely Dexedrine and Ritalin — as the standard treatments.
In recent years, rates of A.D.H.D. diagnosis have soared and drugs like Adderall and Concerta have become so widely prescribed that many patient advocates and doctors see an epidemic of overmedication. The drugs have also become a staple on college and high school campuses as de facto study aids for any striving student, diagnosis or not.
But when Dr. Conners began publishing his trials, the diagnosis was handed out far less commonly, and the treatments often made children worse.
“We take the drugs for granted today, and they’ve become controversial, but at the time these kids were being given much stronger medications — tranquilizers — that had all sorts of side effects,” James Swanson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, said in an interview. “Keith was a leader in switching the field from drugs that knocked kids out to those that enhance behavior and performance.”
Through the 1990s, Dr. Conners was a force in A.D.H.D. research. He played a leading role in a long-term government-financed trial — it began recruiting patients in 1994, published its first main finding in 1999 and ran through 2014 — that compared drug treatment with behavioral therapy, a system of incremental rewards that teaches self-control and has also proved effective.
After a year, the study found that drug treatment was most effective, and sales of stimulant medications spiked. But two years into the study, the gains on medication had vanished — and, in what was considered a concession, Dr. Conners wrote in 2001 that combined behavior-drug treatment was probably the best approach.
“Keith was the godfather of medication treatment for A.D.H.D.,” said William E. Pelham, director of the Center for Children and Families at Florida International University. “That’s the best way to put it.”
Carmen Keith Conners was born on March 20, 1933, in Bingham, Utah, one of three children of Michael and Merle Conners. His father was a machinist, and his mother ran the household and worked at a department store.
The family moved frequently, as Michael Conners chased work, and eventually settled in Salt Lake City (Bingham was later razed to accommodate a copper mine). Keith entered high school there and soon proved himself an exceptional student. On a teacher’s recommendation, he applied for — and won — early entry to the University of Chicago. He left for college at 15 and never got a high school diploma.
After graduating from Chicago in 1953, he became a Rhodes scholar, earning a master’s degree from Oxford, Queens College, in 1955 in philosophy, psychology and physiology. In 1960, he completed a doctorate in clinical psychology at Harvard.
Dr. Conners’s long career took him from Johns Hopkins to Harvard Medical School to the University of Pittsburgh, George Washington University and, finally, the Duke University School of Medicine, where he founded the Duke A.D.H.D. Clinic.
Dr. Conners, who lived in Durham, was married three times. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a twin sister, Carol Wagner; six children from his first two marriages, Anthony Conners, Rachel Carr, Sarah Homolka, Rebecca Conners, Michael Conners and Katie Conners; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
After a half-century of publishing treatment studies and maintaining a clinical practice, Dr. Conners came to see the ascendance of A.D.H.D. as a mixed blessing. The explosion of the diagnosis and the reckless prescribing of stimulant drugs were hardly on his account alone: In 1991, the United States Education Department made students with A.D.H.D. officially eligible for special education, which accelerated rates of diagnosis, and drugmakers have aggressively marketed their products to parents, doctors and adults who think they have attention deficits.
But in a 2013 interview with The New York Times, Dr. Conners, then a professor emeritus at Duke, expressed dismay that some 15 percent of high schoolers reported having been given an A.D.H.D. diagnosis.
“The numbers make it look like an epidemic. Well, it’s not. It’s preposterous,” he said. “This is a concoction to justify the giving out of the medication at unprecedented and unjustified levels.”
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