Faculty

Lauren A. Weiss, PhD

Staglin Family/IMHRO Assistant Professor 
of Psychiatry

Dr. Lauren Weiss is working to uncover the genetic mechanisms behind autism spectrum disorders. Her genetics laboratory is taking an ambitious two-pronged approach.

First, Dr. Weiss is tracing how genes might interact with factors such as sex and environment in autism. For example, she is searching for genetic differences to explain why girls develop autism less often than boys. She is asking whether a parent’s genes can affect a baby’s risk for autism. And she is studying how rare genetic diseases can be used to uncover the genetic architecture of autism. These approaches might lead to better understanding of the biology of autism leading to novel treatment directions, as well as provide better diagnostic tools and risk prediction.

Second, Dr. Weiss is revealing precisely how autism genes affect neural development using a new approach: generating stem cells from patient skin samples. These stem cells can be turned into neurons and other cells of the brain in order to study their growth, development, and function in the lab. Once the cellular deficits are revealed using this model, Dr. Weiss will investigate how those deficits can be modified or corrected, potentially leading to new therapeutic approaches.

Dr. Weiss’ long-term goal is the genetic and molecular dissection of the social deficits underlying autism in order to improve understanding, prediction, and treatment.

Erik Ullian, PhD

Assistant Professor of 
Ophthalmology

Erik Ullian is a neuroscientist who studies how nerve cells connect.

At his laboratory at the Koret Vision Center at UCSF, Ullian now studies the conditions under which synapses, or connections between nerve cells, are formed in the brain. Using transgenic mice, he is investigating how connections between neurons can be established and modified when nerve cells fire, and when they exchange bits of genetic material.

He also studies an unexpected factor: astrocytes, star-shaped support cells previously thought to be only gap-fillers in the brain, now known to guide how nerve cells connect. Using stem cells from individuals on the autism spectrum, combined with new imaging technologies, Dr. Ullian is studying the impact of these support cells on how synapses form in the autistic brain. His research may have an impact on our understanding of numerous diseases of the brain.

Dr. Ullian completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University.

Elliott Sherr, MD, PhD

Associate Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics

Elliott Sherr is a physician and neuroscientist dedicated to caring for children with autism, epilepsy and other neurological disorders, and to understanding the genetic causes of these disorders in order to find better treatments.

The investigations in his laboratory at UCSF, the Brain Development Research Program, aim to understand, prevent and better treat common and severe childhood neurological diseases such as epilepsy, autism and intellectual disability.

Dr. Sherr uses a surprising range of research techniques – from genetics, animal models and imaging to clinical assessments and epidemiology – to create a multi-faceted and robust approach to uncovering the causes of these disorders. He has studied the genes behind versions of autism and epilepsy in the mouse brain. He has also used advanced imaging techniques to study the effects of disruptions in the communication between the two sides of the brain, a plausible cause of autism.

Sherr graduated from Stanford University with undergraduate degrees in philosophy and biology. He earned a doctorate in neuroscience and a medical degree at Columbia University, and completed pediatrics and neurology residencies at UCSF. As director of the Comprehensive Clinic for Brain Development at UCSF, and co-director of the UCSF Neurometabolic Program and Clinic, he also directs efforts to address autism and other neurological disorders in the clinical arena.

John Rubenstein, MD, PhD

Nina Ireland Distinguished Professor in Child Psychiatry

Dr. John Rubenstein is a neuroscientist whose research focuses on regulatory genes that orchestrate development of the forebrain, the portion of the brain that consists of the cerebral cortex and other structures that control language, cognition, and social interactions.

His lab has investigated the roles of specific genes in regulating how cortical neurons mature during development. Their work aims to explain the mechanisms underlying human neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and epilepsy.

He is a Professor in UCSF’s Psychiatry Department and directs the Nina Ireland Laboratory of Developmental Neurobiology.

Neil Risch, PhD

Director, Institute for Human Genomics

Dr. Neil Risch is a statistical geneticist working in both clinical and population genetics.

Dr. Risch has been involved in large research projects on genetic susceptibility to hypertension, cardiovascular disease and torsion dystonia. He has a project underway on genetic and environmental causes of multiple sclerosis and is working with other UCSF researchers on a study of genetic factors that affect response to antidepressant medications. He is also collaborating on projects to uncover the genetic causes of autism spectrum disorders.

Before coming to UCSF in 2004, Dr. Risch was professor of genetics at Stanford and a professor of biostatistics at Yale University. He has been described as “the statistical geneticist of our time.”

Elysa Marco, MD

Associate Professor of Neurology, Psychiatry and Pediatrics; Director of SNAP

Dr. Elysa Marco is a cognitive and behavioral child neurologist who combines an active clinical practice with neuroscience research.

Her laboratory focuses on understanding the basic mechanisms of sensory perception and processing in typical children as well as children with neurodevelopmental disabilities. Her research combines a detailed clinical assessment with innovative imaging techniques that provide ultrafast snapshots of neural activity, with the overarching goal of finding therapeutic interventions to help children enhance learning, socialization, and daily well being.

Dr. Marco treats children with all forms of brain-based disorders. However, her specialty clinics focus on children with cognitive and behavioral differences. She works with children on the autism spectrum, as well as those with sensory processing disorder, prematurity, stroke, and brain malformations.

Dr. Marco joined the UCSF faculty in 2005 after completing her medical school, residency, and fellowship training there. She is an active clinician caring for children at the UCSF Sensory Neurodevelopment & Autism Program Clinic at the San Francisco and Marin Campuses.

Eva Ihle, MD, PhD

Medical Director, Autism Clinic

Dr. Eva Ihle is a neuroscientist and psychiatrist who specializes in the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, particularly autism spectrum disorders, in adults and children.

As both scientist and physician, Dr. Ihle splits her time between studying the brain in the laboratory and treating patients in the clinic. Her earliest research, performed even before earning her MD and PhD at the University of Chicago, focused on the developmental foundation for social behavior in the songbird brain.

As the medical director of UCSF’s Autism Clinic, she specializes in the differential diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders, which can be hard to distinguish from other social and cognitive disorders. She brings a nuanced understanding of brain chemistry to the process of crafting a specialized plan for each patient’s treatment.

“I see caring for people as providing both immediate help and ultimate help,” says Dr. Ihle. “Immediate help is directly providing medical care to patients. The ultimate help, the way I see it, is to do research on brain disorders.”

Robert Hendren, DO

Professor of Psychiatry, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry

Dr. Robert Hendren is a psychiatrist who focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders including autism and pharmacological and biomedical treatments.

His research has spanned a variety of illnesses, from autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to eating and impulse control disorders. In 2001 he became director of the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis, where he developed a strong clinical trials program that has tested many new treatments for autism.

Since coming to UCSF in 2009 as director of child and adolescent psychiatry, Dr. Hendren has conducted many clinical studies, including an innovative trial to determine if there is a genomic profile that can predict the response of autistic children to the drug risperdone. He is also gauging the biological effects of alternative treatments such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, Omega-3s and hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) on individuals with autism.

Despite research and administrative pressures, Dr. Hendren continues to practice as a clinician, seeing patients with serious emotional disorders on a weekly basis. “New technology means we can understand the neurodevelopmental processes that lead to disorders like autism,” he says. “We can identify autism earlier, make targeted interventions earlier, alter the course of the disorder—and maybe even lead to a future where kids no longer have that diagnosis.”

Elissa Epel, PhD

Associate Professor of Psychiatry

Dr. Elissa Epel is a psychologist who studies the biological effects of stress. While pursuing her doctorate at Yale, she began to study the relationships between chronic stress, eating behavior, and neuroendocrine and metabolic processes.

She has ongoing studies examining questions such as: Why do some people eat less during stress whereas others eat more? Does chronic stress really lead to abdominal fat and insulin resistance? Do stress and obesity accelerate the aging of some cells? And why are some people vulnerable to the chronic stress of providing care to family members who are ill, while others are more resilient?

Dr. Epel is also involved in trials examining the effects of stress reduction on immune system age, in people with HIV, obesity, and caregivers. She is interested in mechanisms through which stress reduction may lead to improvements in metabolic health. Mothers of young children with autism spectrum disorder are under tremendous stress and can experience premature aging. Dr. Epel's current study examines how these mothers cope with stress, how it affects their bodies, and whether stress reduction can protect their cells from early aging.

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