At first glance, studying fish eggs may seem like an unusual approach to explore alcohol’s health effects on humans. But scientists beg to differ.
Robert Gerlai, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, examined the neurological effects of alcohol exposure in zebrafish and noticed developmental problems similar to what’s seen in humans whose mothers consumed alcohol during pregnancy.
Zebrafish are common models for studying basic biology, development and human diseases.
Gerlai and colleagues placed small amounts of alcohol in the water of zebrafish embryo tanks. The amount used was not enough to cause physical deformations. Instead, researchers saw anti-social behaviors in these zebrafish.
“The more alcohol we give them, the more anti-social they become as adults,” Gerlai told the Toronto Star. “It changed their social skills, which resemble what you find in mild fetal alcohol syndrome in humans.”
Interestingly, he found that anti-social behaviors increased with the amount of alcohol added to the embryos’ tanks.
Although researchers don’t know how many people have fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, current estimates suggest they affect roughly one to two of every 1,000 live births in the United States each year.
Signs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders — fetal alcohol syndrome being the most severe — range from cognitive issues to physical problems such as low body weight, according to the CDC.
Ultimately, the research allows scientists to study alcohol’s impact on development and behavior in a controlled environment.
Photo credit: Western Fisheries Research Center/U.S. Geological Survey