Karen Dobkins


The goal of our research is to understand typical and atypical development in terms of underlying biological mechanisms.  To this end, we study visual, cognitive and sleep pattern development in 1) typical infants, 2)deaf infants (including those that have received cochlear implants), 3) “high-risk” infants (including those born prematurely, and/or at risk for developing Autism, and 4) children/adolescents with Autism. Our developmental studies employ several different types of measures: perceptual methods, event-related potentials (ERPs), actigraphy, hormonal assays, and behavioral assessments.

In addition to the developmental work, our laboratory is now involved in several lines of social psychology, studying: 1) The relationship between knowledge about orgasms, sexual pleasure and shame, 2) The effects of hugging on establishing intimacy, 3) The effects of exercise and positive affirmations on mental well-being, and 4) Evolutionary accounts of bragging.

Development of Visual Perception.  In typical infants, we study development of motion, color, 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:
  • Wagner K & Dobkins KR (2011). Synesthetic Associations Decrease during Infancy. Psychological Science, 22 (8), 1067-72.
  • Blumenthal E, Bosworth RG, Dobkins KR (2013).  Fast Development of Global Motion Processing in Human Infants. Journal of Vision, 13(13):8, 1–13.
  • Dobkins KR & Harms R (2014).  The Face Inversion Effect in Infants is Driven by High, and not Low, Spatial Frequencies. Journal of Vision, 14(1):1, 1-17.
  • Pallett P & Dobkins KR (2013). Development of Face Discrimination Abilities, and Relationship to Magnocellular Pathway Development, between Childhood and Adulthood.  Visual Neuroscience, 30(5-6), p. 251-262

Preterm Infants. We study development of preterm infants, with the notion that they may have enhanced vision by virtue of being born early, 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:

  • 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.
  • Bosworth RG & Dobkins KR (2013).  Effects of Prematurity on the Development of Contrast Sensitivity:  Testing the Visual Experience Hypothesis, Vision Research, 82: 31-41

Infants at Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  To elucidate the developmental origins of ASD, we conduct visual perceptual, 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.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&dopt=Citation&list_uids=21844053
  • 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.
  • Messinger D, Young GS, Ozonoff S, Dobkins K, Carter A, Zwaigenbaum L, Landa R, Charman T, Stone W, Constantino J, Hutman T, Carver LJ, Bryson S, Iverson JM, Strauss M, Rogers SJ & Sigman M (2013). A BSRC study of High-Risk Siblings at Three Years of Age, JAACAP, 52 (3): 300-308.
  • Pallett P, Cohen S & Dobkins KR (2013).  Face and Object Discrimination in Autism, and Relationship to IQ and Age, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 44 (5), 1039-1054.
  • Zwaigenbaum L, Young GS, Stone WL, Dobkins KR, Ozonoff S, Brian J, Bryson S, Carver LJ, Constantino J, Hutman T, Iverson J, Landa R, Messinger D (2014).   Early Head Growth in Infants at Risk of Autism: A Baby Siblings Research Consortium Study. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (in press).

Visual Plasticity from Altered Early Sensory Experience: Deaf Studies. These perceptual 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 Science10 (3): 256-262.
  • Finney, E., Fine, I & Dobkins, KR (2001).  Visual stimuli activate auditory cortex in the deaf.  Nature Neuroscience, 4(12), 1171 - 1173.
  • Finney E, Clementz BA, Hickok G & Dobkins KR (2003). Visual stimuli activate auditory cortex in deaf subjects:  Evidence from magnetoencephalography.  NeuroReport, 14, 1425-1427.
  • Bosworth RG, Petrich JAF, Dobkins KR (2013). Effects of Attention and Laterality on Motion and Orientation Discrimination in Deaf Signers.  Brain & Cognition, 82: 117-26

Updated Nov 2014