Humans, like many mammals, are an intensely social species. We experience social interactions as rewarding from infancy, and the social cognitive skills we develop in the context of our earliest interpersonal attachments are critical for survival, group cooperation, and personal wellbeing. Disruption of close relationships (e.g., social isolation or loss of a loved one), is a significant risk factor for stress-related mood and anxiety disorders. Social cognition abnormalities are also a hallmark of many brain disorders, and in several disorders, like autism, impaired social functioning is the core symptom. A central goal of the Parker Lab is to better understand the biology of typical and atypical social functioning across a range of species, and to translate these fundamental insights to drive development of novel diagnostic tools to detect, and precision therapeutics to treat, social deficits in patients. Our current research studies are summarized below.
Our human research focuses on the biological regulation of social functioning in healthy individuals and in people with social impairments. Current human research studies in our lab include: identifying biological “signatures” of impaired social functioning using a variety of techniques and tissue types, testing the efficacy of intranasally administered neuropeptides (vasopressin; oxytocin) to improve social abilities in children with autism and related disorders, characterizing social functioning and behavioral impairments in individuals with hypothalamic-pituitary disorders, developing novel tools to better understand auditory-vocal aspects of social communication and affect processing in people with autism, and studying how patient-derived stem cells can enrich our understanding of neuropeptide treatment response.
Our monkey research focuses on the developmental biology of naturally low-social and high-social rhesus monkeys living in a large outdoor colony at the California National Primate Research Center. Current monkey research studies in our lab include: identifying biological “signatures” of sociality using a variety of techniques and tissue types, developing and refining tools to better assess rhesus monkey social behavior and cognition, characterizing the biological and social features of infants “at-risk” for poor social developmental outcomes, employing a sophisticated test battery to quantify the type and severity of social impairments in low-social monkeys, and testing the effectiveness of novel pharmacotherapies to improve social cognition in low-social monkeys.