Karen R. Dobkins, Ph.D., UC San Diego, Professor of Psychology

The goal of our research is to understand typical and atypical development in terms of underlying biological mechanisms. In the past. my laboratory focused mainly on visual development in typical infants, and visual processing in deaf adults who had been auditorily deprived since birth. In addition to these areas of interest, we now study aspects of development other than visual development: cognitive, communicative, emotional, social and gastrointestinal development. And, we study both typically developing infants/children and clinical populations. Specifically, we study infants at risk for autism spectrum disorders (ASD), children/adolescents with ASD, and infants with congenital eye disorders and/or born prematurely. Our developmental studies employ several different types of measures: psychophysics, event-related potentials (ERPs), blood and urine draws, and behavioral assessments.
In addition to the infant/child work, my laboratory continues to study visual processing in typical adults, which we tackle with a combination of psychophysics and neural imaging (fMRI and MEG).

Development of Visual Perception. In the past few years, we have been studying typical development of motion, color processing, and face processing. In one of our studies, we found that young infants appear to be born with “synesthesia”, making idiosyncratic associations between colors and shapes, which then dissipates with age.

Select Publications:
Dobkins KR & Sampath V (2008). The use of chromatic information for motion segmentation: Differences between psychophysical and eye movement measures. Perception, 37, 993-1009.
Wagner K & Dobkins KR (2011). Synesthetic Associations Decrease during Infancy. Psychological Science, 22 (8), 1067-72.
Wagner K, Dobkins KR & Barner D (2012). Slow mapping: Color word learning as a gradual inductive process (under revisions for Cognition).Preterm Infants. We have been studying development in preterm infants, with the notion that they may have enhanced vision by virtue of being borearly, and therefore having more visual experience. We find that they do exhibit enhanced visual processing for stimuli that are mediated by the Parvocellular visual pathway, suggesting this pathway may be quite responsive to effects of early visual experience.
Select Publications:
Bosworth, RG and Dobkins KR (2009). Chromatic and Luminance Contrast Sensitivity in Fullterm and Preterm Infants. Journal of Vision, 9(13):15, 1 – 16.
Dobkins KR, Bosworth RG & McCleery JP (2009). Effects of Gestational Length, Gender, Postnatal Age and Birth Order on Visual Contrast Sensitivity in Infants. Journal of Vision, 9(10):19, 1-21.

Infants at Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). We have been investigating the neural origins of ASD, by conducting visual psychophysical, ERP and behavioral studies in infants who are “High-Risk” for ASD (because they have an older sibling diagnosed with ASD). Studying these High-Risk infants is valuable not only because a certain percentage of them (~19%) can be expected to develop ASD (providing us with important information about development in the first few months of the disorder), but because, even High-Risk infants who do not go on to develop ASD are expected to exhibit atypicalities due to carrying some of the genes for ASD. Understanding these atypicalities can help establish links between genes and behavior. To date, we have found several visual sensory and behavioral atypicalities in High-Risk infants.

We have also begun genetic studies in this cohort, as well as studies of gastrointestinal (GI) functioning. We are soon to publish a finding showing that High-Risk infants who are off of breast milk have a significantly higher chance of developing a GI problem, suggesting that breast milk is protective in this cohort.

Select Publications:
McCleery JP, Allman E, Carver LJ and Dobkins KR (2007). Abnormal Magnocellular (M) pathway visual processing in infants at risk for Autism. Biological Psychiatry, 62(9), 1007-14.
McCleery JP, Akshoomoff N, Dobkins KR & Carver LJ. (2009). Atypical Face vs. Object Processing and Hemispheric Asymmetries in 10-Month-Old Infants at Risk for Autism. Biological Psychiatry, 66(10): 950-957.
Ozonoff, S., Young, G.S., Carter, A., Messinger, D., Yirmiya, N., Zwiagnebaum, L., Bryson, S., Carver, L.J., Constantino, J., & Dobkins K. R., et al. (2012). Recurrence Risk in Younger Siblings of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Pediatrics.
Cornew, L Dobkins KR, Akshoomoff N, McCleery J and Carver LJ (2012). Atypical social referencing in infant siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. DOI 10.1007/s10803-012-1518-8.
Penn AH, Altshuler AE, Small JW, Taylor SF, Dobkins KR, and Schmid-Schönbein GW (2012). Digested formula but not digested fresh human milk causes death of intestinal cells in vitro: implications for necrotizing enterocolitis. Pediatric Research (in press).

Visual Plasticity from Altered Early Sensory Experience: Deaf Studies. These psychophysical studies are aimed at understanding the ways in which visual perception is altered through specific sensory experience. In particular, we study visual processing in deaf individuals, who experience altered sensory input (i.e., auditory deprivation) and have acquired a visual language (i.e., American Sign Language). More recently, we have investigated the neural basis of these perceptual differences between hearing and deaf subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The goal of this research is to determine what aspects of visual processing may be enhanced in the deaf, and to understand these perceptual changes within an ecological context.

Selected Publications:
Bosworth RG & Dobkins KR (1999). Left hemisphere dominance for motion processing in deaf signers. Psychological Science, 10 (3): 256-262.
Finney, E., Fine, I & Dobkins, KR (2001). Visual stimuli activate auditory cortex in the deaf. Nature Neuroscience, 4(12), 1171 - 1173.
Bosworth RG Wright CE, Bartlett MS, Corina DP, & Dobkins KR (2002). Characterization of the visual properties of spatial frequency and speed in ASL signs. TISLR Proceedings, Signum Press (in press).
Bosworth RG Petrich J & Dobkins KR (2012). Laterality of Motion and Orientation Discrimination in Deaf and Hearing Subjects (under revisions for Brain and Cognition)