Fishing for Answers

Zebrafish in alcohol
Saturday, November 28, 2015 - 10:06am
Carla DeMarco
U of T Mississauga professor looks to zebrafish for what they can tell us about human behaviour.

What can zebrafish tell us about alcoholism and alcohol abuse? “Not much,” says Professor Robert Gerlai from the Department of Psychology. “But we are trying to get more information as we delve further into our research.”

Thus commenced Gerlai’s talk, “Can a small fish tell us anything about alcoholism and alcohol abuse,” to commemorate his 2015 UTM Research Excellence Award. Last Thursday afternoon’s lecture was well attended by staff, faculty and students from several departments at UTM, and a reception was thrown in Gerlai’s honour.

Over the course of his lecture Gerlai explained all the reasons why zebrafish, a tiny freshwater fish from Southeast Asia, are an excellent subject to study, not the least of which is that they have genes whose nucleotide sequence is at least 70% identical to that of human gene homologs. Additionally they are fairly easy to rear and you can have a huge number of subjects, what would be the equivalent of a small town, in a relatively modest amount of space. In science, zebrafish were traditionally used to study developmental biology and genetics, but then his lab started using them to study behavioural neuroscience to further understand how the brain works.

Gerlai’s lab in particular studies social behaviour, learning, memory, fear, anxiety, and stress-related phenomena, but their main concern is exploring the effects of ethyl alcohol on brain function and behaviour.

Psychology Professor Robert Gerlai“Why study alcoholism in the first place? Why is it interesting? It is widely available, it’s legal, and does not seem to be much of a problematic drug, doesn’t cause too much harm,” says Gerlai. “But actually alcoholism and alcohol abuse represents a financial and health-care burden that is larger than all of our cardiovascular diseases and cancer-related diseases combined, so it’s an enormous societal problem.”

In addition to looking at the effects of alcohol on the brain, Gerlai’s lab also investigates fetal alcohol-related disorders, and plans to continue along these various lines of inquiry based on the preliminary results they have found.

Along with giving a shout-out to the zebrafish for their contributions, Gerlai dedicated a significant portion of his talk to expressing his gratitude to the staff and faculty in Psychology, the numerous grad students, undergrads, postdocs, research assistants, and volunteers he has encountered and worked with over the years, and acknowledged his entire lab personnel, past and present.

“This award is really recognition for the lab,” says Gerlai. “All of you who are sitting here, and all of those who came before you, made it possible. So it’s really an honour for me to accept this award on your behalf.”

UTM’s Research Excellence Award is given annually to exceptional researchers on the Mississauga campus, and the Lectureship, which was spearheaded by Professor Bryan Stewart, Vice-Principal, Research, is now in its third year. The 2015 award was awarded to two professors for the first time: Professor Gerlai and Professor Diana Raffman from the Department of Philosophy. She will present a talk on her research early in 2016.