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From ecology to brain development: Bridging separate evolutionary paradigms

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Evolution consists of the transformation of species across generations, and this includes morphological and functional diversification of lineages according to the different environmental conditions they face. The nervous system is no exception to this statement. Behavior and ecology are relevant for brain ...

Evolution consists of the transformation of species across generations, and this includes morphological and functional diversification of lineages according to the different environmental conditions they face. The nervous system is no exception to this statement. Behavior and ecology are relevant for brain evolution, as differences in behavioral performances in specific contexts lead to selection of particular groups of genes that can affect neural development, behavior and cognition. For example, migratory birds have developed a powerful flight and neural orienting system, while sedentary birds like crows have brains larger than those of migratory birds, endowed with a large hippocampus and a powerful memory. On the other hand, the adult nervous system is the result of an ontogenetic process in which there are sometimes highly conserved developmental patterns that constrain the possible outcomes that can take place. Recently, research on this line has taken the name of “evo-devo” to highlight the contribution of development to the acquisition of novel phenotypes in evolution. While there has been much work either on the ecological variables involved in adaptation, or the developmental parameters involved in the generation of new phenotypes, little research to date has focused on the interplay between ecological variables and the developmental processes involved in the adaptation to different environmental circumstances. Rather, both approaches have been considered to be somehow antagonistic, relying on different schools of thought.

This Research Topic is oriented to develop an integrative evolutionary view involving ecology, behavior, cognition and neurodevelopmental processes. We will be addressing questions such as: (i) How do ecological variables impinge on different brain, behavioral and cognitive abilities? (ii) How are developmental pathways involved in the evolution of brain, behavior and cognition? (iii) Do different cognitive processes rely on developmentally separated modules? (iv) What is the role of neural plasticity in brain, behavioral and cognitive evolution? (v) Is non-genetic or epigenetic inheritance relevant for the evolution of brain, behavior and cognition? (v) Which is more important, development, adult structure or function, to determine homology and phylogenetic history? (vi) How do behavior and cognition affect subsequent brain evolution? (vii) How relevant is sensory perception for brain evolution? (viii) What is the relation of brain asymmetry to the evolution of behavior and cognition?

We expect to contribute to bridge two approaches that have been difficult to reconcile, one that focuses on the evolution of adult brain structure and function, and the other that is concerned with the developmental mechanisms involved in the generation of novel brain structures. We hope that this initiative will serve to establish a new interdisciplinary trend, which addresses the nervous system (and more generally the whole organism) as a unified organ, subject to both functional and developmental constraints, where the final outcome results of a compromise between different parameters rather than being the result of several single variables acting independently of each other.


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