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Brains Behind the Institute

Karen Parker

Karen Parker

Associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences

The magic in science happens at the interdisciplinary boundaries of a field.

I work at the intersection of biology, psychology, and neuroscience, and began my science career with a question about parenting: Why do mammals form attachment bonds and work together for the long term to raise offspring?

My question then became, what's the biology underlying the parent-offspring bond as well as other long-lasting relationships, and how did these mechanisms evolve? And that led to my current work studying the biology of how we interact with others, and trying to understand what happens when social cognition is impaired, as in the case of autism. We're looking for ways to create new drugs that can help alleviate suffering and improve social abilities, particularly in children.

Researchers often investigate blood to study markers of autism. But autism is a brain disorder, so examining cerebral spinal fluid (CSF), a substance in the brain, might be a better approach, just as it has been for dementia.  Many people told me it would be too difficult to get samples of CSF from children—it's usually collected from the spine or the head—but that only got me more enthusiastic about seeking a solution.

Working with Stanford clinicians in pediatric neurology, pediatric hematology and oncology, pediatric neurosurgery, and the emergency room, we found a way to obtain CSF without any significant additional risk to patients; clinicians would collect a bit more CSF from a patient when they were already obtaining it for a standard-of-care reason. Using this approach, we found a marker for autism in CSF that might allow us to detect this brain disorder, which puts us one step closer to finding a treatment to improve the social abilities of people with autism.

Advancing the care we can give to patients is really exciting for me. Collaborating with colleagues who have complimentary skillsets makes the resulting science better. As you progress in your career, you absorb more and more scientific dogma about how things work in your field. Taking the perspective of a collaborator shakes things up, and can lead to important and transformative insights.

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