Faculty Profile: Stephen Sheinkopf, PhD

Stephen Sheinkopf, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Human Behavior (Research), Assistant Professor of Pediatrics (Research)
Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior, Department of Pediatrics
Work: +1 401-274-1122-x8906
My research focuses the early identification of autism, and on the development of social abilities and regulatory capacity in young children with autism, as well as children at risk for poor social developmental outcomes. Current investigations are focused on very early indicators of risk for autism. These include studies of prenatal behavioral indictors in at risk babies, and studies of early vocal acoustics in babies at risk for or later diagnosed with autism.


I completed my PhD at University of Miami under the direction of Dr. Peter Mundy. Subsequently I completed my postdoctoral training at Brown Medical School under an NRSA fellowship. My primary research interests include the identification of very early signs of autism in infancy, the development of social communication abilities in young children with autism, and neurodevelopmental outcomes in children exposed to drugs prenatally. I have served on scientific grant review panels for Autism Speaks and the Autism Research Program through the Department of Defense, as well as reviewing grants for the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Science Foundation. I serve on the web page committee for the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR), as well as several local and regional advisory boards.

Research Description

My research focuses on social abilities in young children with autism and children at risk for poor social developmental outcomes. I also study the effects of prenatal drug exposure on regulatory abilities, and am investigating the degree to which individual differences in regulatory capacities predict developmental outcomes. Current projects include studies of joint attention and cardiac psychophysiology in children with autism and children with prenatal drug exposure, and the effects of prenatal cocaine on brain development. My research has focused on the development of social and communication abilities in young children. My research has included children with autism spectrum disorders as well as children at risk due to biosocial risk factors such as poverty and prenatal drug exposure. On one level this research asks substantive clinical questions related to the populations, including research that is related to the early presentation (and thus early screening and diagnosis) of autism and research examining the impact of biosocial risks on the development of social and communication development. However, on another level, my research seeks to identify influences on individual differences in social and behavioral outcomes in these populations. Thus, this research is in the model of developmental psychopathology, for it seeks to not only better describe the development of specific populations, but also utilizes findings from these special populations as a means to model factors that affect children with typical development.

1. Joint Attention in Autism: It has long been recognized that children with autism are far less likely than other children to engage in joint attention (social communication that allows children to jointly attend to interests and events). The roots of this deficit are far less understood. We are investigating whether individual differences in biobehavioral responses to social events predicts individual differences in joint attention and other social behaviors in autism. Whereas one theory states that joint attention deficits reflect a social cognitive delay in autism, our hypothesis is that deficits in joint attention reflect deficits in social connectedness.

2. Psychophysiology in Autism: An additional controversy in autism is whether the disorder, which affects the ability and propensity of children to initiate and engage in social interactions with others, reflects a disturbance in social approach tendencies (as alluded to above), or whether the disorder is secondary to an aversion to social interactions. In our research, we utilize measures of both behavior and physiology to characterize the responses of children with autism to different types of social events. Currently, we are investigating the responses of children to social events that differ in their degree of intensity and intrusiveness. Our hypothesis is that children with autism will be hyporeactive to social events that are non-intrusive, whereas they may be hyper-reactive to more intrusive social events.

1. Joint Attention in Prenatal Drug Exposure: While (as described above) autism affects the development of joint attention, pre- and postnatal risk factors may affect the development of this important social-developmental milestone as well. Thus, we are investigating the effects of prenatal drug exposure (specifically, cocaine and methamphetamine) on the development of joint attention and other social communication abilities. In order to address this question, we are investigating joint attention behaviors in two large longitudinal studies of prenatal drug exposure, the Maternal Lifestyle Study (prenatal cocaine) and the IDEAL study (prenatal methamphetamine). These data sets will also allow for complex modeling of the determinants of individual differences in joint attention, as well as the impact of joint attention on the later development social and communication abilities in these populations.

2. Psychophysiologic Studies of Prenatal Drug Exposure: Prenatal drug exposure, and the postnatal environmental risks that go along with prenatal drug exposure, are likely to affect the development of children's ability to regulate their internal state in the face of stress and challenge. As part of the Maternal Lifestyle Study, we are investigating the impact of prenatal cocaine exposure on the development of cardiorespiratory regulation and reactivity. We are particularly interested in the use of measures of heart rate variability as an index of central regulatory capacity and are studying the impact of prenatal cocaine on the development of such cardiac measures. In addition, we are investigating whether individual differences in cardiorespiratory regulation are predictors of developmental outcomes. As part of this area of research, we are investigating whether children with better-developed regulatory capacity are buffered against the cumulative impact of multiple biosocial risks.

3. Functional Neuroimaging: Related to the issue of prenatal cocaine's effect on the development of regulatory capacity, we have begun an investigation of the impact of prenatal cocaine on brain development. Here we are focusing on the development of brain systems related to the cognitive control of attention and inhibition. We have utilized functional MRI to study whether children with prenatal cocaine exposure differ in brain functioning during tasks requiring response inhibition.

Grants and Awards

National Research Service Award (F32), National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Barry Lester, Sponsor 1999-2001


American Psychological Society
American Psychological Association
Society for Research in Child Development
International Society for Autism Research (Web Page Committee)

Funded Research


Principal Investigator (1R03MH082214-01A1) – National Institutes of Mental Health. Pre- and Postnatal Neurobehavioral Profiles in Infants At-Risk for Autism. 7/1/08 – 6/30/10. $100,000 total direct costs.
Principal Investigator (1 R03 DC009301-01A1) – National Institute on Deafness & Other Communication Disorders. Nonlinguistic Vocalizations in Autism: Acoustic Cry Analysis in Early Infancy. 9/30/08 – 8/31/10. $100,000 total direct costs.
Principal Investigator (5 R21 DC010925-02) - National Institute on Deafness & Other Communication Disorders. Early Detection of Autism through Acoustic Analysis of Cry. 09/11/09 - 08/31/11. $411,985 total direct costs.

Visual Perception in Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Brown University Dept. of Psychiatry & Human Development, Collaborative Translational Brain Research (CTBR) program.
Co-Principal Investigator (with L. Pessoa).
July 2005 – June 2006. $20,000.

Vagal Tone and Social Behaviors in Autism
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Principal Investigator.
July 2004 – August 2005. $50,000

Emotion Processing and Social Competence in Head Start Children.
National Science Foundation (NSF). Co-Investigator (Ronald Seifer, PI).
February 2004 – January 2007. $81,214

Vagal tone and Social Behaviors in Children with Autistic Disorder.
National Alliance for Autism Research
July 2003 - June 2006. $116,952

Neuroimaging in Drug-Exposed Children: Maternal Lifestyle Study.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Co-investigator (B. Lester, PI).
Supplement to SRC 1U10-HD27904-1
October 2001 - March 2004

Prenatal Methamphetamine Exposure and Child Development.
NIDA. Co-investigator (B. Lester, PI).
September 2001-August 2006.

Vagal Tone and Social Outcome in At-risk Children
NIDA. Principal Investigator (Barry Lester, sponsor)
1-F32-DA05971-01, National Research Service Award
August 1999-July 2001.

Selected Publications

  • Liu, J., Lester, B. M., Neyzi, N., Sheinkopf, S. J., Gracia, L., Kekatpure, M., & Kosofsky, B. E. (2013). Regional Brain Morphometry and Impulsivity in Adolescents Following Prenatal Exposure to Cocaine and Tobacco. JAMA Pediatrics, 167, 348-354 (2013)
  • Reggiannini, B., Sheinkopf, S. J., Silverman, H. F., Li, X., & Lester, B. M. (2013). A flexible analysis tool for the quantitative acoustic assessment of infant cry. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research. Published online 06/19/13 (2013)
  • Sheinkopf, S. J., Iverson, J. M., Rinaldi, M. L., & Lester, B. M. (2012). Acoustic properties of pain and non-pain cries in infants at-risk for autism. Autism Research, 5, 331-339 (2012)
  • Stephens, B. E., Bann, C. M., Watson, V. E., Sheinkopf, S. J., Peralta-Carcelen, M., Bodnar, A., et al. (2012). Screening for autism spectrum disorders in extremely preterm infants. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 33, 535-541 (2012)
  • Liu, J., Cohen, R. A., Gongvatana, A., Sheinkopf, S. J., & Lester, B. M. (2011). The impact of prenatal exposure to cocaine and tobacco on diffusion tensor imaging and sensation seeking in adolescents. The Journal of Pediatrics, 159, 771-775. (2011)
  • Levine, T. P., Sheinkopf, S. J., Pescosolido, M., Rodino, A., Elia, G., Lester, B. (2011). Physiologic Arousal to Social Stress in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Pilot Study. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6, 177-183 (2011)
  • Bagner, D. M., Sheinkopf, S. J., Vohr, & Lester, B. (2010). Parenting Intervention for Externalizing Behavior Problems in Children Born Premature: An Initial Examination. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 31, 209-216 (2010)
  • Sheinkopf, S. J., Lester, B. M., Sanes, J. N., Eliassen, J. C., Hutchison, E., Seifer, R., LaGasse, L., Durston, S., & Casey, B. J. (2009). Functional MRI and Response Inhibition in Children Exposed to Cocaine In Utero: Preliminary Findings. Developmental Neuroscience, 31, 159-166. (2009)
  • Sheinkopf, S. J., LaGasse, L. L., Lester, B. L., Liu, J., Seifer, R., Bauer, C. R., Shankaran, S., Bada, H., & Das, A. (2007). Vagal tone as a resilience factor in children with prenatal cocaine exposure. Development and Psychopathology, 19, 649-673. (2007)
  • 2. Sheinkopf, S. J. (2005). Hot Topics in Autism: Cognitive Deficits, Cognitive Style, and Joint Attention Dysfunction. Rhode Island Medical Association, 88, 152-158. (2005)
  • 1. Sheinkopf, S. J., Lester, B. M., LaGasse, L. L., Seifer, R., Bauer, C. R., Shankaran, S., Bada, H., Poole, K., Wright, L. L., Smeriglio, V. (2005). Neonatal Irritability, Prenatal Substance Exposure, and Later Parenting Stress. Journal of Pediatric Psychology. Advance Access published online on April 12, 2005 (2005)
  • Sheinkopf, S. J., Mundy, P., Claussen, A. H., & Willoughby, J. (2004). Infant Joint Attention Skill and Preschool Behavioral Outcomes in At-Risk Children. Development and Psychopathology, 16 (2). (2004)
  • Sheinkopf, S. J., Lester, B. M., Eliassen, J. C., Sanes, J. N., Hutchinson, E., Seifer, R., & LaGasse, L. (2004) Functional MRI and Prenatal Cocaine Exposure. Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA. (2004)
  • Sheinkopf, S. J., Mundy. P., Oller, D. K., & Steffens, M. (2000). Vocal atypicalities in preverbal autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30, 345-354. (2000)
  • Mundy, P. & Sheinkopf, S. J. (1998). Early communication skill acquisition and developmental disorders. In J. Burack, R. Hodapp, & E. Zigler (Eds.), Handbook of Mental Retardation and Development (pp. 183-207). Cambridge University Press. (1998)
  • Sheinkopf, S. J. & Siegel, B. (1998). Home based behavioral treatment of young autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 28, 15-23. (1998)
  • Sheinkopf, S. J. & Mundy, P. (1994). Comments on the nature of modular systems and joint attention skills. Current Psychology of Cognition, 13, 712-717. (1994)
  • Mundy, P. & Sheinkopf, S. (1993). Social behavior and the neurology of autism. International Pediatrics, 8, 205-210. (1993)