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.