Evolutionary motor biases and cognition in children with and without autism

Sci Rep. 2020 Oct 15;10(1):17385. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-74224-4.


Evolution has endowed vertebrates with a divided brain that allows for processing of critical survival behaviours in parallel. Most humans possess a standard functional brain organisation for these ancient sensory-motor behaviours, favouring the right hemisphere for fight-or-flight processes and the left hemisphere for performing structured motor sequences. However, a significant minority of the population possess an organisational phenotype that represents crowding of function in one hemisphere, or a reversal of the standard functional organisation. Using behavioural biases as a proxy for brain organisation, results indicate that reversed brain organisation phenotype increases in populations with autism and is associated with weaker cognitive abilities. Moreover, this study revealed that left-handedness, alone, is not associated with decreased cognitive ability or autism. Rather, left-handedness acts as a marker for decreased cognitive performance when paired with the reversed brain phenotype. The results contribute to comparative research suggesting that modern human abilities are supported by evolutionarily old, lateralised sensory-motor processes. Systematic, longitudinal investigations, capturing genetic measures and brain correlates, are essential to reveal how cognition emerges from these foundational processes. Importantly, strength and direction of biases can act as early markers of brain organisation and cognitive development, leading to promising, novel practices for diagnoses and interventions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Psychomotor Performance*