Social Neurosciences Research Program
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a brain disorder of early childhood onset which is characterized by marked impairments in social-emotional reciprocity. Although ASD is one of the most devastating childhood disorders in terms of prevalence (1 in 68 U.S. children) and societal cost ($137 billion expended annually in the U.S.), its basic disease mechanisms remain poorly understood. Few biomarkers of ASD have been identified, hindering the understanding of its basic biology; nor are there any laboratory-based diagnostic tests to detect, or any medications to treat, ASD’s core social deficits. Creating animal models with reliable behavioral and biological correlates to the human disease, and in humans, elucidating the underlying neurobiology of social deficits, testing promising medications that improve social functioning, and identifying biomarkers of treatment response are important challenges that require urgent attention. Addressing these barriers to progress is the principal goal of the Parker Lab Social Neurosciences Research Program at Stanford University, which spans primate models to patients with ASD. We are currently developing several innovative monkey models of social impairments, including studies of rhesus monkeys that “spontaneously” exhibit social deficits and common marmoset monkeys which are engineered to do so. Our clinical research studies include biomarker discovery in cerebrospinal fluid and blood samples collected from children with and without ASD, and clinical trials that test the efficacy of novel pharmacotherapies to improve social functioning in children with ASD. Our lab is particularly interested in testing whether “social” neuropeptide (e.g., oxytocin and arginine vasopressin) signaling pathways are robust biomarkers of, and treatment targets for, social impairments in ASD.
Please visit our “research studies” page to learn more about the specific projects our team is currently conducting, and ways in which YOU can help move research forward, either by joining our research team, participating in one of our research studies (as either a child with autism or a typically developing control child), or by donating to our research program.
Our journal article reported that blood vasopressin levels can be used: 1) as a surrogate for brain vasopressin activity in humans; and 2) as a robust biomarker of theory of mind ability in children with autism. These findings sugggest that the vasopressin signaling pathway may be a promising therapeutic target by which to improve social cognition in children with autism.