U of T news

This tiny fish might unlock the brain's mysteries – and it’s coming to U of T

zebrafish are an ideal subject for neuroscience research (photo by Ken Jones)

They may only be a few millimeters in length but tiny zebrafish larvae may hold the promise of unlocking big mysteries about the human brain.

Thanks to a successful Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) grant, fundamental research into how the zebrafish brain functions will take place at U of T Scarborough. Tod Thiele, an assistant professor iof biological sciences, is a recipient of the CFI’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund that will bring a state-of-the-art zebrafish aquatic housing facility to UTSC. 

“The seven-day old zebrafish possesses a relatively simple brain but it shares a similar vertebrate brain layout with humans,” says Thiele. “The reduction in complexity in the larval zebrafish provides an excellent starting point in trying to piece together how vertebrate brains process sensory inputs and produce movement.”

Zebrafish are one of the main model systems in biology that are used for biomedical research. They’re an ideal subject for neuroscience research because at the larval stage they are transparent, providing an unobstructed view of their brain without surgery.

“If we can begin to understand the fundamental principles of motor control, we can also hopefully begin to understand how irregular activity patterns in the brain produce the motor deficits seen in many neurodegenerative diseases,” says Thiele.

The graduate and undergraduate students in Thiele’s lab will use advanced optical techniques to monitor and manipulate brain activity in conjunction with tests of the larval fish’s extensive range of behaviours. The ultimate goal is to understand how neural activity flows through connected networks of neurons to influence the movements of these tiny fish.

One specific area of the zebrafish brain Thiele plans to study is the circuitry in the fish that plays a similar role in movement production to the human basal ganglia, a brain region important to the development of Parkinson’s disease.

The CFI’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund provides funding for institutions to acquire infrastructure and a portion of the operating and maintenance costs used to undertake cutting edge research.