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Clinical psychologist Terrie Moffitt has been monitoring the same group of people in the same study since the 1980s. If you’re counting, that’s almost 40 years.

She’s watched them grow up — and is now watching them grow old. She and her collaborators, an international consortium of scientists similarly fueled by astonishing endurance and a drive for data, have one goal: They want to prevent people from ever becoming patients.

“Our research doesn’t apply once the person is already sick. We’re really oriented toward taking steps early so that doesn’t happen,” said Moffitt, Duke’s Nannerl O. Keohane University Professor and associate director of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Study, better known as the Dunedin Study.

Day of Testing

 
Photo by Guy Frederick
 
 

A retinal scan is among the tests performed on Dunedin Study members.

Moffitt shares what happens during daylong testing of Dunedin Study members, who have remained anonymous because of the sensitivity of the data that has been collected.

 

The Duke Difference

 
Photo by Aaron Reuben
 
 

Graduate students from Duke’s psychology and neuroscience department with Terrie Moffitt and Edward M. Arnett Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Avshalom Caspi, a fellow Dunedin Study researcher who is also based at Duke. The students, who work on different aspects of the study, traveled to New Zealand in January to learn more about research methods and observe the age 45 assessment, which began in the fall of 2017.

 

Named after Dunedin, a coastal city in New Zealand’s South Island, the study was originally conceived as a short-term investigation into developmental and health problems in a cohort of 1,037 children, from birth to three years old in the early 1970s. As the cache of significant results and landmark findings grew, so did the number of prestigious grants and awards, including the $500,000 Prime Minister’s Science Prize, New Zealand’s highest science honor. Now in its fifth decade, researchers are delving into the biomarkers of aging — blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol — to track how genetics and early-life experiences have affected members as they ease into their late 40s. The hope is to prevent negative consequences like accelerated aging and later onset of disease and, ultimately, help the general population live longer.

While not the biggest or longest longitudinal effort, the Dunedin Study has an unusually high retention rate of 95 percent of the original cohort and has generated more than 1,200 publications and reports off its deep pool of information. Revelatory results have stretched across a range of issues — mental health and neurocognition, cardiovascular risk, respiratory health, oral health, sexual and reproductive health, and psychosocial functioning — and have influenced or helped inform policy makers in New Zealand and other countries around the world. The study has also spawned three sub-studies on family health history and parenting.

Moffitt, who joined the Dunedin Study in 1985 and divides her time between Duke and Dunedin, focuses on how genetic and environmental risks work together to shape the course of abnormal human behaviors and psychiatric disorders. One of the things she’s been after is the lifelong impact of early childhood self-control in the Dunedin cohort. Her findings show that the 3-year-olds who had poor self-control in the 1970s are less happy, successful and healthy 40 years later than peers who had good self-control. The results have been used to support a growing movement for quality early childhood education.

Her work has also laid the foundation to help distinguish between children with early-onset and persistent antisocial behavior with those whose antisocial behavior began in adolescence. The origins of these problems are different for each group. They also require different policy responses, which has influenced judicial practice in New Zealand and led to the overturning of the death penalty for youth under 18 in the U.S. Moffitt was awarded the Stockholm Prize in Criminology for the impact and significance of this research.

The long road has had other rewards: A home at a renowned university like Duke, the ability to work with talented and dedicated students, and a lifelong bond with members of the Dunedin Study.

“I love this study to pieces,” Moffitt said. “It’s been really incredible to see the variety of human nature unfolding before me.”

 

MAKE THE DUKE DIFFERENCE

Faculty at Duke not only teach and mentor our students, they actualize our ambitions of knowledge in the service of society. Duke faculty shape research programs, advance new fields of study and draw promising peers and students to our campus.

Thanks to Duke’s rapid ascent and reputation, we’re able to hire a caliber of faculty we might not have been able to attract a decade ago. Professors like Terrie Moffitt are drawn to Duke because they are excited by the prospect of working across boundaries to find solutions to complex problems. They know this is a place where they can teach, research and connect in new ways. Read about the impact of Moffit’s work into how childhood shapes later life, what it means to be human and the effects of childhood interventions on adult health costs.

To support and retain the world’s top senior scholars — and to ensure we can compete for the most sought-after young scholars — we’re seeking philanthropic investments to establish faculty chairs and support the directors of academic and research centers throughout every part of the university. 

Help us continue the tradition of faculty excellence.