Ecophysiology of cognition: How do environmentally induced changes in physiology affect cognitive performance?

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Cognitive performance is based on brain functions, which have energetic demands and are modulated by physiological parameters such as metabolic hormones. As both environmental demands and environmental energy availability change seasonally, we propose that cognitive performance in free-living animals might also change seasonally due to phenotypic plasticity. This is part of an emerging research field, the ‘ecophysiology of cognition’: environmentally induced changes in physiological traits, such as blood glucose and hormone levels, are predicted to influence cognitive performance in free-living animals. Energy availability for the brain might change, and as such cognition, with changing energetic demands (e.g. reproduction) and changes of energy availability in the environment (e.g. winter, drought). Individuals spending more energy than they can currently obtain from their environment (allostatic overload type I) are expected to trade off energy investment between cognition and other life-sustaining processes or even reproduction. Environmental changes reducing energy availability might thus impair cognition. However, selection pressures such as predation risk, mate choice or social demands may act on the trade-off between energy saving and cognition. We assume that different environmental conditions can lead to three different trade-off outcomes: cognitive impairment, resilience or enhancement. Currently we cannot understand these trade-offs, because we lack information about changes in cognitive performance due to seasonal changes in energy availability and both the resulting changes in homeostasis (for example, blood glucose levels) and the associated changes in the mechanisms of allostasis (for example, hormone levels). Additionally, so far we know little about the fitness consequences of individual variation in cognitive performance. General cognitive abilities, such as attention and associative learning, might be more important in determining fitness than complex and specialized cognitive abilities, and easier to use for comparative study in a large number of species. We propose to study seasonal changes in cognitive performance depending on energy availability in populations facing different predation risks, and the resulting fitness consequences.

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