Analyzing the output of the brain

Robert Gerlai
Thursday, October 4, 2018 - 2:30pm
Maeve Doyle

Robert Gerlai wants to understand the neurobiological mechanisms of the effects of alcohol on the brain. The behaviour geneticist studies changes in behaviour caused by alcohol in zebrafish. He hopes that understanding these behaviours in fish will ultimately reveal something about how humans respond to alcohol.

“Behaviour is the output of the brain,” he says, and analyzing behaviour allows him to reveal how brain function changes in response to alcohol.

Fishing for answers

Gerlai’s behavioural genetics lab in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga focuses on the development of behaviour-testing methods and behavioural characterization of zebrafish. He says that zebrafish respond to alcohol in the same way higher order vertebrates, including humans, do.

“This similarity will, in the long run, allow us to try to translate our discoveries from zebrafish to humans,” he says. “Humans have 20,000 to 25,000 genes and several genes could alter the effects of alcohol. Some people drink regularly and are just fine. Some people get hooked on alcohol after just a few drinks and become alcohol abusers. Why?”

While there are environmental reasons, there are also genetic reasons, says Gerlai. His research group is working in his lab towards identifying those genetic reasons.

Innovative technology

In June 2018, Gerlai moved his research group into a new modern laboratory made possible through the Post-secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund. The facility consists of the main holding room, testing rooms, a quarantine room and a reverse osmosis water treatment system.

“The reverse osmosis system filters tap water to remove nearly everything from the water including ions, debris, trace elements, chemicals such as chlorine, and bacteria, to produce water without any impurities,” says undergraduate psychology student Ben Tsang, who also manages the lab part-time.

Gerlai says that specific salts and oxygen are added to the water to make it a viable environment for the fish before they are added to the tanks.

The lab is also equipped with a computerized LED light control system. “This allows us to simulate natural sunrise and sunset sequences,” says PhD student Amanda Facciol.

A main room holds a series of fish racks and has a work area for researchers. The work area will accommodate a postdoctoral fellow, who arrives later this year from France, and a PhD student who will be visiting from Brazil, in addition to Facciol, Tsang and 15 undergraduate research students who currently use the space.

Training future researchers

Gerlai says that it is important to provide undergraduate students with research experience, particularly those who want to become scientists. The knowledge that undergraduate students gain in the classroom is the end-product of a lot of hard work. “They do not see the logic, the failures and the trial-and-error that lead to the beautifully crystallized written result they read in the textbook. It is important to walk this path themselves.” Understanding the reality of laboratory research is especially important for undergraduate students who want to become scientists.

About 30 per cent of the undergraduate students who join his lab end up with a peer-reviewed, scientific publication, he says. “This can be crucial for them when applying to graduate school.”

Tsang has five; in his most recent publication, Tsang and his co-authors discovered that the effect of alcohol on zebrafish depends upon the time of day when it was administered.

Gerlai says that this finding has also been demonstrated in other animals, including humans. It implies that circadian rhythm (the body’s clock) and its mechanisms interact with the effects of alcohol. “But what makes it interesting is that it is now shown in zebrafish," says Tsang.

Establishing that zebrafish respond to alcohol the same way humans do allows Gerlai and other researchers with different biology tools in fields such as genetics, pharmacology or neurobiology to ask the next question: “What is behind this behaviour effect and how do we mitigate it in humans?”