Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Genetics of Drinking Like a Fish

Image by J. Dncsn at Wikimedia Commons
Among people, drug and alcohol addictions are the most prevalent preventable cause of death in the Western world. But not everyone that tries an addictive substance like alcohol, cigarettes, and addictive drugs becomes addicted to the point that it has a devastating effect on their life and health. People that do struggle with addiction commonly have less control over their impulsive behavior than those that do not, and it is likely that our genes play a role in these differences in both impulsivity and addictive behavior.

Although each animal species has a unique set of traits that defines them as that species, there are also striking similarities between species. It is these similarities and differences that allow comparative physiologists to make inferences about human health based on knowledge of how different animal species function. An animal species that demonstrates an aspect of physiology and/or behavior similar to humans (and can thus provide substantial insight to human health and behavior) is called an animal model. One surprising yet useful model for impulsivity and substance addiction is the zebrafish.

I am coming to get you! Zebrafish photo by Ray Crundwell provided by the Royal Society.
Like humans, zebrafish are vertebrates (animals with backbones). This isn’t just a similarity in structure, but comes from the fact that we share many of the same genes. Not only do zebrafish have many of the same genes that we do, but they show similar variations in behavior, impulsivity, and responses to addictive substances. They can be trained to do tasks that require various levels of impulse control, they can be tested for their likelihood to seek rewarding things, and as a perk, they are transparent as babies and you can see their organs functioning right through them!

If you’ve ever wondered if you’re more impulsive than a fish, now is your chance to find out! Researchers from the School of Biological and Chemical Science at Queen Mary University of London who study the genetics of impulsivity and addiction in zebrafish are showcasing their work at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in London! The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition is an annual fair of the most cutting-edge science the UK has to offer and it’s running this week from Tuesday the 2nd through Sunday the 7th. No science background is required to attend (exhibits are aimed for anyone over the age of 12) and it’s free!

The Zebrafish Genetics Exhibit focuses on an impulsivity test called the five-choice discrimination task. In this task, a fish learns that a light will turn on in one of five chambers. If it swims to that chamber, it will get a food reward. But if it doesn’t wait for the light and swims to the wrong chamber, it gets nothing. The exhibit features a human-driven version of the task where you can test yourself, your children and your friends. Another way you can test your impulsivity is with the continuous performance task. This task involves continuously hitting a button when you see certain cues appear on a screen, but not hitting the button when an X appears. It may sound easy, but it is deceptively hard. Test yourself and see how you compare to the rest of the population!

The Zebrafish Genetics Exhibit also has a microscope where you can look at the transparent zebrafish babies and see their little hearts beat. They even have some fish with fluorescently labeled proteins which allow you to see neurons (brain cells) with the neurotransmitters dopamine or serotonin. These are among the neurons thought to be involved in addiction. And if you have any questions, you can ask the scientists directly! Researchers Alistair Brock, Matteo Baiamonte, Matt Parker, and Helen Moore (get to know them here) will all be on hand to provide demonstrations and to answer questions.

The Zebrafish Genetics Exhibit is just one of 24 exhibits. Other exhibits include Technology for Nature (a demonstration of how scientists can harness technology from the Information Age to help monitor and respond to environmental change and biodiversity loss), Sports Research (a display of how modern science can help athletes achieve their full potential), and Prehistoric Colours (an exhibit of color-producing fossilized structures that help scientists learn about the role of color in prehistoric animal communication). In addition to exhibits, there are events all week, including talks on cutting-edge science topics; a science cabaret of jokes, songs, demonstrations, videos, poetry and other performances; and hands-on activities and demonstrations.

If you want to attend the Summer Science Exhibition, it is located at 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG. Directions and other details can be found here. And if you can’t get to London this week, you can still watch the scientist videos, ask the scientists any question you want online, and play the science-based video games. Take advantage of this great opportunity to interact directly with the leading scientists of today!

Want to know more about zebrafish? Check these out:

1. Parker, M.O., & Brennan, C.H. (2012). Zebrafish (Danio rerio) models of substance abuse: harnessing the capabilities Behaviour, 149, 1037-1062 DOI: 10.1163/1568539X-00003010

2. Parker, M.O., Millington, M.E., Combe, F.J., & Brennan, C.H. (2012). Development and implementation of a three-choice serial reaction time task for zebrafish (Danio rerio) Behavioural Brain Research, 277, 73-80 DOI: 10.1016/j.bbr.2011.10.037

3. Parker, M.O., Brock, A.J., Walton, R.T., & Brennan, C.H. (2013). The role of zebrafish (Danio rerio) in dissecting the genetics and neural circuits of executive function Frontiers in Neural Circuits, 7, 1-13 DOI: 10.3389/fncir.2013.00063

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