Behavioral Sciences, Behavioral Neuroscience; Fear; Zebrafish; Alarm substance; Animal model; Serotonin
Fear can sometimes paralyze us, and it can sometimes be exciting; for some people, fear is so crippling it can significantly mix up their lifes! We understand a little bit about how the brain acts when we are afraid, mainly by studying the brains of animals. Recently, surprising findings were made using a humble animal, the zebrafish – a small aquarium fish that in the past has helped scientists figure out how our organs develop. Zebrafish are useful because they develop quickly, reproduce richly, and have brains which are similar to ours. They also produce what we call an “alarm substance” that alerts shoalmates when one of them has been injured; when they smell this substance in the water they act as if they are very scared. When this happens, they release serotonin in their brains, a neurotransmitter that acts as a light switch, making them less afraid but more cautious – as if trying to figure out if a predator is there or not. Hopefully, finding more about how the zebrafish brains process this serotonin signal can help scientists develop better treatments for mental disorders that are associated with fear.