Researchers from the University of British Columbia and Harvard University have co-developed a system that captures on video and barcodes the behavioral responses of zebrafish to chemical compounds on a large scale. The approach could dramatically speed up the discovery of new psychiatric drugs.
The discovery in the 1950s of drugs that act in the nervous system has been important both for the understanding of neurobiology and the treatment of neurological diseases. Since then, very few new drugs have been developed.
The new system, detailed in today's edition of Nature Chemical Biology, was developed by UBC statisticians Jennifer Bryan and Rick White and Harvard's Randall Peterson and David Kokel. It can track the behavioral effects of up to 14,000 chemicals at a time and has already identified new chemicals that affect behaviour in fish.
"The capacity of this approach is quite distinctive," says Bryan, an associate professor in the Department of Statistics and the Michael Smith Laboratories. "Most pharmacological studies of behaviour have been relatively small scale, involving a few small molecules at most."
"New psychoactive drugs represent new windows into how the brain works," says Randall Peterson of Harvard. "We hope that behavioral screens with zebrafish will lead to many new compounds that help us understand and ultimately treat nervous system disorders."
Zebrafish models have increasingly been used to assess drug toxicity and safety, largely because they are transparent, genetically tractable, and have organ systems that are very similar to those of humans. Zebrafish embryos are permeable to drugs.