A number of risk genes for autism spectrum disorders have been identified. A major goal of future research is to translate these genetic findings into a more in-depth understanding of how such risk, combined with environmental factors, disrupts brain development and contributes to autism. Dr. Levitt is leading a collaborative effort by four laboratories to understand the functional implications of mutations in the autism risk gene MET. Basic research in mice has shown that altering MET expression leads to problems in the formation of synapses which ultimately affects the ability of the cells to communicate complex information. Levitt's team will investigate how the MET gene controls the development of synapses in circuits that control social, emotional, and cognitive behaviors, and how environmental and genetic factors combine to increase risk by causing greater disturbances in brain development. The researchers will combine the use of genetically engineered mice that carry a mutation in the MET gene with technologies that probe complex behaviors and the function of synapses in pathways that control these behaviors. Their experiments will test the popular hypothesis that local and long-range connections in the brain are disrupted differently in autism than in healthy controls, leading to the core behavioral features of the disorder.