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Karen Pierce PhD Awarded a $3.8 Million NIH R37 MERIT Award

August 3rd, 2023

karen pierce

Karen Pierce, PhD

Karen Pierce, PhD, a professor in the Department of Neurosciences, was awarded a 5-year, $3.8 million R37 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to develop an eye tracking based screening tool for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The NIMH R37 Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) mechanism, awarded to innovative primary investigators of high-scoring R01 applications, affords the initial 5-year R01 funding period an opportunity for a 5-year extension to pursue additional research aims and could be renewed for up to 10 years.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts 1 out of every 36 children. Current best practice to detect ASD is based on results from a screening questionnaire filled out by parents. This approach is only modestly effective, as evidenced by the fact that the mean age of diagnosis and treatment engagement has been stable at around 3-4 years in age for the past 2 decades, despite the fact that symptoms of ASD are often observable within the first year of life. Eye-tracking, which generates biologically-relevant, objective, and quantifiable metrics of social and non-social visual attention patterns, is a technology that holds considerable promise as a tool to dramatically change how screening is implemented. It may also be able to reduce the mean age of diagnosis and treatment engagement by several years. This study will examine the efficacy of eye tracking technology to screen for autism during 12, 18, and 24 month well-baby visits at pediatric offices as administered by medical staff – not researchers.  Toddlers will watch a series of short, 1-minute movies while eye gaze is recorded, and eye tracking predicted diagnosis will be compared to best-practice diagnosis by a licensed psychologist, blind to eye tracking scores.

This study advances translational science by rigorously testing if eye tracking technology, which has been shown to be highly effective as a diagnostic tool in research settings, can be used effectively in ‘real world’ clinical settings. State-of-the-art bioinformatics will examine if combining eye-tracking with the standard parent report questionnaire approach is superior relative to either approach alone. Statistical modeling will examine whether or not factors such as age at screening, sex, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status (SES) impacts rates of screening in medical offices or eye tracking screen score. Toddlers will be enrolled from 4 separate pediatric offices across San Diego County.

Additional Key members of the team include:

  • Nathan Lewis,  Department of Pediatrics, University of California San Diego
  • Ronghui (Lily) Xu, School of Public Health Sciences, University of California San Diego

For award details, see NIH REPORTER:

Read more about the research ongoing at the UCSD Autism Center at: