An agent-based model clarifies the importance of functional and developmental integration in shaping brain evolution

Shahar Avin, Adrian Currie, Stephen H Montgomery

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


Vertebrate brain structure is characterised not only by relative consistency in scaling between components, but also by many examples of divergence from these general trends.. Alternative hypotheses explain these patterns by emphasising either ‘external’ processes, such as coordinated or divergent selection, or ‘internal’ processes, like developmental coupling among brain regions. Although these hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, there is little agreement over their relative importance across time or how that importance may vary across evolutionary contexts.

We introduce an agent-based model to simulate brain evolution in a ‘bare-bones’ system and examine dependencies between variables shaping brain evolution. We show that ‘concerted’ patterns of brain evolution do not, in themselves, provide evidence for developmental coupling, despite these terms often being treated as synonymous in the literature. Instead, concerted evolution can reflect either functional or developmental integration. Our model further allows us to clarify conditions under which such developmental coupling, or uncoupling, is potentially adaptive, revealing support for the maintenance of both mechanisms in neural evolution. Critically, we illustrate how the probability of deviation from concerted evolution depends on the cost/benefit ratio of neural tissue, which increases when overall brain size is itself under constraint.

We conclude that both developmentally coupled and uncoupled brain architectures can provide adaptive mechanisms, depending on the distribution of selection across brain structures, life history and costs of neural tissue. However, when constraints also act on overall brain size, heterogeneity in selection across brain structures will favour region specific, or mosaic, evolution. Regardless, the respective advantages of developmentally coupled and uncoupled brain architectures mean that both may persist in fluctuating environments. This implies that developmental coupling is unlikely to be a persistent constraint, but could evolve as an adaptive outcome to selection to maintain functional integration.
Original languageEnglish
Article number97
Number of pages18
JournalBMC Biology
Publication statusPublished - 10 May 2021


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