Skip to content Skip to navigation

Advancing detection and treatment of autism through translational research - Karen Parker

Karen Parker
October 8, 2020 - 2:50pm to 3:35pm

Karen J. Parker, PhD

Associate Professor in Psych/Major Laboratories and Clinical & Translational Neurosciences Incubator
Stanford University



Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a poorly understood brain disorder characterized by core social impairments. ASD impacts 1 in 54 US children and is among the most devastating disorders of childhood in terms of prevalence, morbidity, outcome, and cost. ASD is currently diagnosed on the basis of behavioral criteria because its disease biology remains poorly understood. By the time a child typically receives a formal ASD diagnosis, cumulative delays in the early processing of basic social stimuli have contributed to an atypical trajectory of poor social learning and abnormal social skill acquisition that is immensely difficult to overcome. The capability of rapidly detecting ASD based on a patient’s biology, when a child’s symptoms first emerge, or before the disorder manifests behaviorally, could revolutionize ASD evaluation and intervention. To pursue this possibility, we have pioneered a translational ASD research program, in naturally low-social rhesus monkeys and in children with ASD. Converging evidence from this work indicates that the arginine vasopressin signaling pathway plays a critical and conserved role in regulating social abilities that are impaired in both low-social monkeys and ASD patients. We have also found that people diagnosed with ASD in childhood have significantly lower neonatal cerebrospinal fluid vasopressin concentrations compared to those who do not later receive an ASD diagnosis. On the basis of this biological evidence, we recently conducted a “first in class” clinical trial which showed that vasopressin treatment improves social abilities in children with ASD. These collective findings suggest that a neurochemical marker of impaired social functioning may be present very early in life, before behavioral symptoms emerge, and that vasopressin may hold both diagnostic and therapeutic promise for improving the lives of those with ASD.


Dr. Parker is Associate Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, where she directs the Social Neurosciences Research Program and leads the Major Laboratories Steering Committee. The principal goal of her research program 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 patient populations. Dr. Parker received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Michigan and completed postdoctoral training at Stanford University. Dr. Parker joined the Stanford faculty in 2007. She is an Affiliate Scientist at the California National Primate Research Center, a Member of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, and a Kavli Fellow of the US National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Parker’s research program has been supported by multiple funding agencies including the NIH, the Simons Foundation, and NARSAD. Dr. Parker serves on the Editorial Board of Psychoneuroendocrinology, and on various national (e.g., NIH and NSF) and international (e.g., Medical Research Council) grant review committees and scientific panels. Dr. Parker was born in Boulder, CO and grew up in suburban Chicago, IL. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, three children, and an Australian shepherd.