Biological pathways to adaptability--interactions between genome, epigenome, nervous system and environment for adaptive behavior

Genes Brain Behav. 2012 Feb;11(1):3-28. doi: 10.1111/j.1601-183X.2011.00752.x. Epub 2011 Dec 13.


Because living systems depend on their environment, the evolution of environmental adaptability is inseparable from the evolution of life itself (Pross 2003). In animals and humans, environmental adaptability extends further to adaptive behavior. It has recently emerged that individual adaptability depends on the interaction of adaptation mechanisms at diverse functional levels. This interaction enables the integration of genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors for coordinated regulation of adaptations. In this review, we first present the basis for the regulation of adaptation mechanisms across functional levels. We then focus on neuronal activity-regulated adaptation mechanisms that involve the regulation of genes, noncoding DNA (ncDNA), ncRNAs and proteins to change the structural and functional properties of neurons. Finally, we discuss a selection of these important neuronal activity-regulated molecules and their effects on brain structure and function and on behavior. Most of the evidence so far is based on sampling of animal tissue or post-mortem studies in humans. However, we also present techniques that combine genetic with behavioral and neurophysiological measures in humans (e.g. genetic imaging) and discuss their potential and limitations. We argue that we need to understand how neuronal activity-dependent adaptation mechanisms integrate genetic, epigenetic and experience-dependent signals in order to explain individual variations in behavior and cognitive performance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / cytology
  • Central Nervous System / physiology*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / physiology*
  • Gene-Environment Interaction*
  • Genome
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology*