Rachel Dean (BA, Hons ’19) is first author on a recently published study that found when zebrafish could see other members of their species, the anxiety-reducing effects of ethanol decreased.

Anxiety-reducing effects of alcohol decrease when zebrafish can see their friends

January 18, 2021 | Science

Future zebrafish research in Dr. Trevor Hamilton’s psychology lab – and other labs studying anxiety-reducing drugs around the world – should always make it clear whether their fish have a view of their friends based on recently published research.

Historically, researchers often expose fish to a drug or a toxin in a dosing apparatus (tank) that holds a single fish, explains Hamilton. But the associate professor of psychology and his student researchers wanted to look at whether the effects of alcohol (technically ethanol), a drug known to reduce anxiety in zebrafish, might differ if fish could see other members of their species during dosing.

The paper’s first author, Rachel Dean (BA, Hons ’19), teamed up with fellow psychology student Nicole Hurst Radke (BSc, Hons ’20) to divide the fish into four groups and tested them in several situations: exposed to habitat water alone or with a view of other fish, and exposed to ethanol alone or with a view of other fish. Once they had collected the raw data, the psychology researchers turned to statistics prof Dr. Brian Franczak and Nirudika Velupillai, a fourth-year Bachelor of Science student majoring in Applied Statistics, for assistance with statistical analysis and to help interpret their findings.

The result: when fish had a view of their friends, the anxiety-reducing effects of ethanol decreased. That is noteworthy for a couple of reasons, says Hamilton.

While it’s a huge jump, the research could offer a clue to answer the age-old question, “Do you get more drunk when you drink alone?”

But the larger implication is academic. Knowing that whether or not a zebrafish has an eye on other members of its species is an essential variable in studying the effectiveness of anxiety-inducing and anxiety-relieving drugs and could clear up discrepancies among different research studies.

“From this point on in every study we publish, we’ll be making it clear whether or not the fish had a visual of conspecifics – whether they could see their friends or not – and we’re hoping that similar research does the same,” says Hamilton.

Seeing his undergraduate students shine as first authors on an academic publication and how that work can help them pursue their goals is something Hamilton says is unique about MacEwan.

“Producing research themselves, helping to write it and having their work published can greatly impact their future academic goals,” he says.

That’s certainly the case for both Dean and Hurst Radke, who are currently pursuing master’s degrees. Dean is at the University of Calgary studying school and applied child psychology. Hurst Radke is at the University of Alberta studying counselling psychology.


Virtual Graduate School Fair on Jan. 20

MacEwan students who studied zebrafish with Dr. Trevor Hamilton are currently graduate students in psychology, medicine, veterinary medicine, physiotherapy and nursing. Find out how grad school might fit into your future.

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