Eric Courchesne 

Eric Courchesne, PhD 



Contact Information

8110 La Jolla Shores Drive, #201
La Jolla, CA 92037

Phone: 858-551-7929

Mailing Address:
9500 Gilman Drive # 0217
La Jolla, CA 92093-0217

Dr. Courchesne's research focuses on the neurobiology of autism. His efforts have produced new information about the structural, functional, and genetic bases of this disorder. His work has been recognized through publication in such journals as Science and the Journal of Neuroscience. He is also the source of new insights on the functional role of the cerebellum.

Infantile autism stands as one of the most common neurobiological disorders of infancy and early childhood, occurring in 1 out of 1,000 individuals. The Courchesne Laboratory has played a significant role in understanding the biological basis of autism. This includes identifying the sites of neuroanatomical abnormality, obtaining evidence regarding the timing of biological onset, identifying neural substrates correlated with specific functional deficits, and obtaining evidence of candidate genetic loci.

The Courchesne Lab has a reputation for using state-of-the-art procedures and adhering to exacting standards in patient diagnosis and selection procedures. Characterizations of autism anatomy involve the use of highly sophisticated structural and functional MRI technology to detect important anatomical and functional effects. In the first controlled prospective study of anatomic development in autism, the laboratory used a research design that provided key insights into two problems not previously addressed in any published study: identification of the neural abnormalities that are present at the earliest age (2-3 years) and identification of the neural abnormalities that distinguish autism from non-autism pervasive development disorders.

During the course of this work, Dr. Courchesne found that the size of the cerebellar vermis was inversely correlated with frontal lobe grey matter volume, the characteristic finding being vermal hypoplasia accompanied by some degree of frontal hyperplasia. In recent studies, Dr. Courchesne has demonstrated that autistic children have difficulty processing auditory stimuli and difficulty orienting attention in space. These observations suggest that multiple modalities are abnormal in autism, likely as a result of anatomic lesions in multiple brain regions.

In August 2007, Dr. Courchesne was awarded a new P50 Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) grant funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, in cooperative agreement with the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, the National Institute of Deafness and other Communication Disorders, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The Department pf Neurosciences proudly welcomes this latest addition to the translational research enterprise at the UCSD School of Medicine.

As Principal Investigator, Dr. Courchesne oversees a new and exciting period of growth in the interdisciplinary collaborations and research agenda of his UCSD Center for Autism Research. In accord with the ACE mandate, the Center will bring together and provide core resources to biomedical, behavioral, and clinical science investigators in an effort to find the causes of and to develop new preventive interventions and improved treatments for autism. Research activities at the UCSD ACE will be directed toward achievement of three primary aims: characterization of the early developmental clinical phenotype of autism from 12 to 36 months of age, identification of early developmental biomarkers of autism from age 12 months, and identification of candidate overgrowth susceptibility genes in autism.

To implement the 3 scientific cores and 4 projects that comprise the UCSD ACE agenda, Dr. Courchesne's team includes 24 senior and junior faculty at UCSD, the Scripps Research Institute, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Rady Children's Hospital and Health Center, and SUNY Upstate Medical University. Karen Pierce, PhD, will lead the Clinical Phenotype: Recruitment and Assessment Core, in consultation with Richard H. Haas, MD; Laura Schreibman, PhD, and Aubyn Stahmer, PhD will co-lead the Clinical Phenotype: Treatment Response Core; and Nicholas Schork, PhD, will lead the Integrated Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Analysis Core.

These core resources will support four projects:

  • MRI Studies of Early Brain Development in Autism
  • Imaging the Autistic Brain before It Knows It Has Autism: Functional MRI Response to Social, Emotion, and Language Stimuli in 1- and 2-Year-Olds At-Risk for Autism
  • Autism Biomarkers and Risk Genes: Comparative Gene Expression in Brain and Blood
  • Targeting Genetic Pathways for Brain Overgrowth in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Project Primary Investigators, in addition to Drs. Courchesne and Pierce, are Tony Wynshaw-Boris, MD, PhD, and Stephen J. Glatt, PhD. Primary Co-Investigators are Anders Dale, PhD; Fred Gage, PhD, and Ming Tsuang, MD, PhD, DSc.

The UCSD ACE projects encompass the first-ever high-impact use of neural stem cell models to study the biology of autism. These models hold great promise in setting the pace for a new era of discovery of genetically and neurodevelopmentally targeted biotherapeutics for autism.

Equally innovative is Dr. Pierce's extraordinary plan – 1-Year Well-Baby Check-Up Approach – for working with pediatricians throughout San Diego County to detect infants and toddlers at-risk for autism at the earliest age possible. The physicians will make their referrals on the basis of a checklist of behaviors that are similar to those of older children with autism spectrum disorders. The primary goal of this center is to identify brain or other physical differences that might predispose a child to autism. The UCSD Center will collect some of the first comprehensive data sets ever obtained on how the brains of very young children with autism process and respond to information.

As part of a national network of Autism Centers of Excellence, the UCSD ACE will contribute to the National Database for Autism Research (NDAR), a collaborative biomedical informatics system currently being created by the National Institutes of Health to support and accelerate autism research and to inform and enhance clinical practice. As a national resource encompassing genomic, imaging, laboratory, clinical, and behavioral data sources, NDAR will provide the core technology for a data warehouse, a data-entry system, and a centralized repository for common measures and their documentation.

Dr. Courchesne's research efforts are complemented by teaching activities. The laboratory consistently includes a number of outstanding graduate and undergraduate students. Basic Neuroscience 200 is the core course for all first-year neuroscience graduate students. Together with Dr. Steven A. Hillyard, Dr. Courchesne developed Basic Neuroscience 200C, which is the third quarter of the course.

In addition, he continues to participate actively in the Graduate Program, serving as Chair or Co-Chair of dissertation committees. He regularly lectures in Basic Medical Neurology and in the School of Medicine course Introduction and Orientation to Research.

Dr. Courchesne is frequently invited to lecture at major conferences and symposia and has also made numerous media appearances, including as a featured guest on public television. He is a member of numerous advisory boards, including Autism-France and the Autism Society of America. He has served as a reviewer for many journals, including Science and Journal of Neuroscience.

View a video on autism research with Drs. Eric Courchesne and Karen Pierce.

Visit the Autism Center of Excellence website.

Dr. Courchesne has developed a far reaching program in autism research, with a large consortium of highly respected collaborators coming from local institutions (UCSD, Salk, Scripps), as well as institutions across the country (UCSF, The Allen Institute for Brain Research in Seattle, Mount Sinai in New York, CHOP in Philadelphia, SUNY, and the University of Chicago). Administratively, he oversees more than 25 people including three UCSD faculty, four clinical psychologists and senior research scientists, laboratory assistants, postdoctoral scholars, graduate students, and undergraduate students. The center uses techniques such as sequencing, immunohistochemistry, bioinformatics and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to conduct research. Research conducted at the center by Dr. Courchesne, in particular is focused on structural MRI and in vivo and postmortem activities. He has focused on two major areas: neural and genetic defects that may cause early brain overgrowth in autism; and in vivo MRI of autistic infants and toddlers: common early cortical defects, divergent developmental trajectories. The first area of research utilized postmortem samples of exclusively young, 2 to 14 year old, autism cases. From this research, Dr. Courchesne’s laboratory was able to demonstrate the first evidence using MRI of genetic and neural defects that may underlie frontal cortex overgrowth and functional abnormality in autism. This incredible research led to the prize winning paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2010. This research represents the culmination of a hypothesis made 7 years ago by Dr. Courchesne and has significantly altered current methods of study such that the youngest possible children diagnosed with autism are the focus of most research. Because of his postmortem studies, Dr. Courchesne’s Center is at the forefront of discovering the cellular and molecular bases of brain growth abnormalities in autism. Other research on the postmortem samples identified that the prefrontal cortex of young autistic cases show abnormal gene expression in networks regulating cell cycle, apoptosis, and cell survival. This suggests the failure to regulate the processes of neurogenesis and apoptosis during fetal development may underlie the excess in prefrontal cortical neuron numbers, as reported in the study above. A third study found evidence of a type of pathological cortical laminar disorganization in autism that could be the result of an abnormal excess of neurons. His work in vivo MRI of autistic infants and toddlers looked at the difference between autistic patients in multiplex families (i.e. families with multiple sibling autism diagnoses) vs. simplex (single case diagnosis) families. Using MRI to study over 250 infants and toddlers, his lab found evidence showing a pronounced difference in both brain growth trajectories and clinical outcome between simplex and multiplex autism. Specifically, there is pronounced brain overgrowth in early life in simplex autism but not in multiplex autism infants and toddlers. Moreover, simplex autism subjects had worse clinical scores than the multiple autism subjects. The implication of these observations is that multiplex and simplex autism brains follow different developmental paths resulting in divergent long-term structural and behavioral outcomes. A manuscript describing this research and its implications is currently in progress. Dr. Courchesne’s research, in addition to being highly significant, is also well funded. In addition to the continuing $10 million NIH grant, he has also been successful in renewing and obtaining nearly $6 million in additional funding. Supported by the NIH, CAFM (merged with Autism speaks), and the Simons Foundation, Dr. Courchesne has developed an interdisciplinary research program with substantial forward momentum, that has already lead to new lines of research and new breakthroughs in understanding the genetic, cellular, developmental, anatomical and functional anomalies that underlie autism. The current review period has seen the publication of 15 new refereed journal research articles. He is first or senior author on 8 of these papers, including the previously mentioned article appearing in J. Neurosci (A.I..149) named as one of the “Top 10 Autism Papers of the Year. Several of his papers have appeared in extremely high quality journals such as Mol. Psychiatry (Impact Factor >15), J Neurosci (IF >7), Biol Psychiatry (IF ~9).
Neuron number and size in prefrontal cortex of children with autism.
Courchesne E,Mouton PR,Calhoun ME,Semendeferi K,Ahrens-Barbeau C,Hallet MJ,Barnes CC,Pierce K.
Publish Date :2011 Nov 9
PMID :22068992

Genome-wide expression assay comparison across frozen and fixed postmortem brain tissue samples.
Chow ML,Li HR,Winn ME,April C,Barnes CC,Wynshaw-Boris A,Fan JB,Fu XD,Courchesne E,Schork NJ.
Publish Date :2011 Sep 10
PMID :21906392

Disrupted neural synchronization in toddlers with autism.
Dinstein I,Pierce K,Eyler L,Solso S,Malach R,Behrmann M,Courchesne E.
Publish Date :2011 Jun 23
PMID :21689606

Family-based association testing of glutamate transporter genes in autism.
Jacob S,Brune CW,Badner JA,Ernstrom K,Courchesne E,Lord C,Leventhal BL,Cook EH,Kim SJ.
Publish Date :2011 Aug
PMID :21085054

Brain growth across the life span in autism: age-specific changes in anatomical pathology.
Courchesne E,Campbell K,Solso S.
Publish Date :2011 Mar 22
PMID :20920490

Microglial activation and increased microglial density observed in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in autism.
Morgan JT,Chana G,Pardo CA,Achim C,Semendeferi K,Buckwalter J,Courchesne E,Everall IP.
Publish Date :2010 Aug 15
PMID :20674603

Longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging study of cortical development through early childhood in autism.
Schumann CM,Bloss CS,Barnes CC,Wideman GM,Carper RA,Akshoomoff N,Pierce K,Hagler D,Schork N,Lord C,Courchesne E.
Publish Date :2010 Mar 24
PMID :20335478

Maternal transmission of a rare GABRB3 signal peptide variant is associated with autism.
Delahanty RJ,Kang JQ,Brune CW,Kistner EO,Courchesne E,Cox NJ,Cook EH Jr,Macdonald RL,Sutcliffe JS.
Publish Date :2011 Jan
PMID :19935738

Amygdala enlargement in toddlers with autism related to severity of social and communication impairments.
Schumann CM,Barnes CC,Lord C,Courchesne E.
Publish Date :2009 Nov 15
PMID :19726029

Family-Based Association Testing of OCD-associated SNPs of SLC1A1 in an autism sample.
Brune CW,Kim SJ,Hanna GL,Courchesne E,Lord C,Leventhal BL,Cook EH.
Publish Date :2008 Apr
PMID :19360657

Functional abnormalities of the default network during self- and other-reflection in autism.
Kennedy DP,Courchesne E.
Publish Date :2008 Jun
PMID :19015108

Deviant functional magnetic resonance imaging patterns of brain activity to speech in 2-3-year-old children with autism spectrum disorder.
Redcay E,Courchesne E.
Publish Date :2008 Oct 1
PMID :18672231

Atypical functional lateralization of language in autism spectrum disorders.
Kleinhans NM,Müller RA,Cohen DN,Courchesne E.
Publish Date :2008 Jul 24
PMID :18555209

Transmission disequilibrium testing of the chromosome 15q11-q13 region in autism.
Kim SJ,Brune CW,Kistner EO,Christian SL,Courchesne EH,Cox NJ,Cook EH.
Publish Date :2008 Oct 5
PMID :18361419

Functional neuroimaging of speech perception during a pivotal period in language acquisition.
Redcay E,Haist F,Courchesne E.
Publish Date :2008 Mar
PMID :18333980

The intrinsic functional organization of the brain is altered in autism.
Kennedy DP,Courchesne E.
Publish Date :2008 Feb 15
PMID :18083565

Mapping early brain development in autism.
Courchesne E,Pierce K,Schumann CM,Redcay E,Buckwalter JA,Kennedy DP,Morgan J.
Publish Date :2007 Oct 25
PMID :17964254

fMRI during natural sleep as a method to study brain function during early childhood.
Redcay E,Kennedy DP,Courchesne E.
Publish Date :2007 Dec
PMID :17904385

N-acetyl aspartate in autism spectrum disorders: regional effects and relationship to fMRI activation.
Kleinhans NM,Schweinsburg BC,Cohen DN,Müller RA,Courchesne E.
Publish Date :2007 Aug 8
PMID :17612510

MRI neuroanatomy in young girls with autism: a preliminary study.
Bloss CS,Courchesne E.
Publish Date :2007 Apr
PMID :17420687
2008 Bullock Award
  Neuroscience Department