Our Team


Lab Directors

Eric Courchesne, Autism Center of Excellence director

Eric Courchesne, PhD
ACE Director
Professor, UCSD Department of Neurosciences

Eric Courchesne is one of the world’s leading experts on the neurobiology of autism. He is the overall director and principle investigator of the UCSD Autism Center of Excellence, and is also the director of the UCSD Autism Center’s MRI Project on early brain development in autism.

His research and the Center are dedicated to uncovering the brain bases and genetic causes of autism. Current MRI studies of autism aim to identify the brain structures that are abnormal at infancy in autism and to discover patterns of abnormal early brain growth.

Current functional brain imaging techniques (“fMRI”) are used to establish links between autistic symptoms and the brain sites responsible for them. His studies of frontal cortex microstructure seek to identify abnormal developmental changes in microstructure and gene expression from early childhood to adulthood in autism.

Recognized through publications in such journals as Science, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, The New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), his work has significantly contributed to scientists’ understanding of the biological bases of autism, and has been the source of new insights on the functional role of the frontal lobes and cerebellum.

Dr. Courchesne is frequently invited to lecture at major conferences and symposia and he has also made numerous media appearances, including as a featured guest on U.S., Canadian, Japanese, French, and British public TV science programs. His discoveries have also been featured in newspapers and magazines around the world, including Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

He is a member of several advisory boards, including Autism-France and the Autism Society of America. Dr. Courchesne’s studies have resulted in over 170 publications.

His research is supported through grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the Cure Autism Now Foundation, the NICHD Developmental Brain and Tissue Bank at the University of Maryland, the Harvard Brain Bank and the Autism Tissue Program.


Karen Pierce, assistant director, Autism Center of Excellence

Karen Pierce, PhD
ACE Assistant Director
Associate Professor, UCSD Department of Neurosciences

Karen Pierce is Director of Clinical Research and the Director of Functional Brain Imaging at the UCSD Autism Center of Excellence (ACE).

Dr. Pierce has been in the field of autism research for over 20 years and began her career studying ways to treat autism through various behavioral therapies. After a decade of clinical research, she turned her attention to the brain and received a training award from the NIMH to respecialize in functional brain imaging.

Dr. Pierce’s past functional brain imaging research focused on understanding the neural substrates of abnormal social processing in young children and adults with autism. Her research suggested that the brain region involved in face processing, the so-called “fusiform face area,” (FFA) is abnormal when individuals with autism look at the faces of strangers, but engages more normally when viewing the faces of loved ones such as their mother.

This cumulative body of research led to the idea that it may be the systems that modulate the fusiform face area that are abnormal in autism, not the FFA per se.

Within the past few years Dr. Pierce has focused her efforts exclusively on the 12-36 month age period and engages in research aimed at discovering an early clinical and neurobiological signature of autism.

To study autism prospectively beginning at 12 months, Dr. Pierce developed the “1-Year Well-Baby Check-Up Approach” wherein thousands of babies in the general population are screened around their first birthday. Dr. Pierce has utilized sleep MRI methods to capture functional and structural information about the autistic brain at an age that often precedes diagnosis (e.g., 12-24 months).

Her goal is to use functional magnetic resonance image (fMRI) to discover a functional brain signature of infants at-risk for autism. In so doing, infants and toddlers can begin treatment significantly earlier than heretofore conceived.

Dr. Pierce also uses eye tracking to discover early signatures of eye gaze patterns that may demonstrate elevated risk for autism in infants.

Her research is funded by several grants from the NIMH, as well as, private organizations such as Autism Speaks, National Foundation for Autism Research, and the Organization for Autism Research.

Her functional imaging and clinical work has been highlighted in major print and television media such as KPBS, KUSI, NBC, CNN, Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the San Diego Union Tribune and Newsweek Magazine.


Research Team

 

Clelia Aherns-Barbeau

Clelia Aherns-Barbeau
Lab Manager

 

 


 
Liz Bacon Liz Bacon, MA
Graduate Student

Ms. Bacon is a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in experimental psychology at the University of California, San Diego. She received her B.A. from Arizona State University, where she majored in Psychology and minored in Speech and Hearing Sciences, and her M.A. in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego. She has been working with children with autism in clinical settings since 2006. She is particularly interested in the early development of autism and is studying the early behavioral expression of autism in toddlers at our research program.


Cindy Carter, research psychologist at the Autism Center of Excellence

Cynthia Carter Barnes, PhD
Clinical Psychologist
PSY 26108                                                                                       

Dr. Barnes (Cindy) has been at the UCSD Autism Center of Excellence since early 2004, and has worked with children with autism and their families for 19 years. Before joining the laboratory, she worked as a parent trainer and also served as the Director for Children's Hospital's Autism Intervention Center.

Dr. Barnes received her master's and doctorate degrees in Educational Psychology with emphasis in Developmental Disabilities from UC Santa Barbara, where she was trained in the Koegel Autism Center under the renowned autism treatment researcher, Dr. Robert Koegel.  She is versed conducting developmental and psychological evaluations of the individuals participating in our research, and providing referrals and resources for early intervention.  She also is an author and co-author on a  number of manuscripts, and heads the team in making sure our studies are in compliance with UCSD Human Protections Program regulations.

 



Debra Cha

Debra Cha, PhD
Clinical Psychologist
 PSY 25684

Dr. Debra Cha is a licensed clinical psychologist at the UCSD Autism Center of Excellence. She received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology with an emphasis in children and families. Her clinical experiences have predominantly focused on identifying and treating children with autism. Prior to joining the UCSD Autism Center of Excellence, she supervised and coordinated the delivery of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services, which included screening and identifying young children at-risk for autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Cha is bilingual (Korean) and is passionate about delivering culturally competent services. Her current role at our agency includes conducting developmental evaluations.




Lisa T. Eyler, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry

Dr. Eyler received her undergraduate degree from Duke University in 1991 and her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. After a post-doctoral fellowship in geriatric psychology, she joined the faculty of the VA Desert-Pacific Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center (MIRECC) and then was appointed as faculty in the UCSD Department of Psychiatry. She is now an Associate Professor in the Psychiatry Department and Clinical Research Psychologist in the MIRECC program for which she serves as Associate Director of the Neuroimaging Unit. Dr. Eyler is also a faculty member in the SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology and the Stein Institute for Research on Aging. She is chair of the Psychiatry Department Chair’s Advisory Committee on Diversity Issues and chair of the UCSD School of Medicine’s Standing and Promotions Committee.

Dr. Eyler's research focuses on understanding individual differences in cognitive and emotional functioning using structural and functional brain imaging and blood-based biomarkers.  She is a co-investigator in the Autism Center of Excellence at UCSD and is involved in studies that aim to discover a bio-behavioral fingerprint of autism at a very young age by combining neuroimaging, behavioral, and genetic measures in infants and toddlers at risk for autism to improve diagnostic and prognostic predictions and better understand the developmental causes of the disorder. She is also Principal Investigator of an NIMH-funded project which aims to examine whether brain structure and function appear to age more rapidly among individuals with bipolar disorder and how this may relate to increasing cognitive deficits with age. Additional research just beginning in her lab will examine how patterns of cognitive change over time relate to patterns of mood instability and blood-based immune markers in bipolar disorder. Finally, Dr. Eyler has an interest in healthy aging and has conducted studies examining the relationship of cognitive and emotional success to brain function and blood-based biomarkers among healthy seniors, and she is a co-investigator on the Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging MRI study which aims to understand genetic and environmental contributions to brain aging and its association with cognitive and emotional functioning.


Linda Lopez, pediatric phlebotomist at the Autism Center of Excellence

Linda Lopez
Pediatric Phlebotomist

Ms. Lopez has 12+ years experience as a phlebotomist and also spends her time assisting the psychologists and working with our Spanish speaking families.



Isabella Mutschler

Isabella Mutschler, PhD
Postdoctoral Scholar

Isabella recently joined the research team at UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence. Her main research interests lie in the fields of clinical neuroscience and developmental psychology. More specifically, her research focuses on using neuroimaging methods to understand the neural correlates of abnormal social-emotional processing in young children with autism. Isabella studied clinical psychology and neuroscience at the Universities of Tuebingen and Freiburg (Germany), and at Tufts University. After finishing her PhD thesis at the University of Tuebingen she continued as a postdoc at the University of Basel (Switzerland).

Srinivasa Nalabolu

Srinivasa Nalabolu, PhD
Sr. Clinical Research Data Manager

Dr. Srinivasa Nalabolu is Senior Clinical Research Data Manager for ACE, UCSD. As a member of a multidisciplinary team (comprised of clinicians, statisticians, clinical research associates and project managers), he oversees data management activities on clinical trials for the Clinical Operations of the Autism Center. From project start-up to database lock, he manages the monitoring of clinical trials data for completeness, accuracy and consistency, ensuring data meets quality standards. The Data Manager is responsible for assuring data integrity and compliance as well as managing data capture, editing, and transfer activities, and works closely with staff of campus database resources to design and implement novel databases.

Dr Nalabolu is a bioinformatics scientist with a broad background in data mining & data integration of various biological databases for product development, genomics, proteomics and database administration. He has extensive experience in designing, implementing and managing business and social innovation platforms to enable collaboration, crowd sourcing and electronic data capture within and across organizations.



Sunny Pence
Clinical Coordinator

Ms. Pence graduated Cum Laude from San Francisco State University with a B.A. in psychology and specializing in physiological psychology. She is interested in the neurological correlates of behavior in ASD and is currently finishing her Master’s degree in psychological research from SFSU. At the lab she is involved in directly coordinating aspects of the clinical team such as overseeing student research assistants and working with families.


Tiziano Pramparo

Tiziano Pramparo, PhD
Associate Research Scientist

Tiziano Pramparo joined the ACE in 2011 to study those aspects of autism that relate etiology and pathophysiology. His graduate education in human cytogenetics/molecular genetics coupled with his post-doctoral training in neuro-developmental biology using mouse models for neuronal migration defects allow him to combine different approaches to identify and dissect the molecular mechanisms potentially disrupted during brain development in autism.
Currently, his research focuses on the identification of autism-specific molecular signatures and biological markers as a mechanism for early detection of at-risk children, the definition of sub-phenotypes, as well as the development of early intervention protocols. He has been applying multi-modality approaches that combine genomic, behavioral and clinical features associated with autism. His research ideas were recently awarded with a KL2 grant under the CTRI program.


.Anders Dale, PhD founding co-director of the Multimodal Imaging Laboratory

Collaborators

Anders Dale, PhD, founding Co-Director of the Multimodal Imaging Laboratory, an interdisciplinary initiative of the Departments of Neurosciences and Radiology. He is highly skilled in the development and utilization of multimodality imaging technologies.

Within both departments, Dr. Dale is the designated point person for integrating the various modes and methods of collecting imaging data, including functional MRI (fMRI), magnetoencephalography (MEG), electroencephalography (EEG), and optical imaging.

His efforts are directed in three areas: continuing development and refinement of accurate and automated algorithms for evaluation subjects using multimodality approaches to data collection; statistical analysis of data; and conducting studies in animal models using optical imaging, high field fMRI, and electrophysiological recordings to enhance the interpretation of neuroimaging studies.


Ilan Dinstein, post doctoral at the Autism Center of Excellence

Ilan Dinstein
Postdoc

Ilan Distein received his PhD in Neuroscience at NYU in 2009.

 


Previous Team Members

Kathleen Campbell, MRI lab assistant at the Autism Center of Excellence

Kathleen Campbell
MRI Laboratory Assistant

 

 

 Nicole Gallagher, clinical coordinator and administrative assistant at Autism Center of Excellence

Nicole Gallagher, MPH
Clinical Liaison

 

 

  Roxana Hazin, clinical coordinator at the Autism Center of Excellence

Roxana Hazin
Clinical Coordinator

 

 

 

Steven Marinero
MRI Laboratory Assistant

 

 

 

Maisi Mayo, MRI lab assistant at the Autism Center of Excellence

Maisi Mayo
MRI Laboratory Assistant

 

 

 

Stephanie Solso, MRI lab assistant at the Autism Center of Excellence

Stephanie Solso
MRI Laboratory Assistant

 

 

 

Stuart SpendloveStuart J. Spendlove, PhD
Bilingual Research Psychologist

 

 

 

Julia Young, MRI lab assistant at the Autism Center of Excellence

Julia Young
MRI Laboratory Assistant