Developmental ethanol exposure and its impact on behaviour and HPI axis activity of zebrafish
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Ethanol exposure during pregnancy is one of the leading causes of preventable birth defects, leading to a range of symptoms collectively known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). More moderate levels of prenatal ethanol exposure (PNE) lead to a range of behavioural deficits including aggression, poor social interaction, poor cognitive performance and increased likelihood of addiction in later life. Current theories suggest that adaptation in the hypothalamic-pituitaryadrenal (HPA) axis and neuroendocrine systems contributes to mood alterations underlying behavioural deficits and vulnerability to addiction. This has led to the suggestion that corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) antagonists and glucocorticoid (steroid) inhibitors may be potential therapeutics to address the deficits of PNE and for the treatment of addiction. The zebrafish (Danio rerio) has several advantages over mammalian models, such as low cost of maintenance, short life cycle, easy embryological manipulation and the possibility of large-scale genetic screening. By using this model, our aim is to determine whether developmental ethanol exposure provokes changes in the HPA axis (HPI axis in fish), as it does in mammalian models, therefore opening the possibilities of using zebrafish to elucidate the mechanisms involved, and to test novel therapeutics to alleviate deleterious symptoms. Thus this thesis focuses solely on the effect of developmental ethanol exposure on the functioning of the HPI axis in zebrafish. Stress-reactivity in zebrafish larvae ethanol-treated 1-9 days post 4 fertilisation (dpf) was assessed using thigmotaxis and thigmotaxis following airstress. In both tests, lower stress-related responses were obtained with ethanol treated animals, in that they spent less time at the edges of the apparatus (P<0.01, n=3). They also showed lower total body cortisol (P=0.04, n=14). Larvae also showed the same behaviour pattern two weeks after ethanol exposure, (23dpf) (P=0.04, n=3), again with reduced total cortisol (P=0.03, n=4). HPI-related gene transcription was also assessed in 9dpf ethanol treated zebrafish larvae, by qRT-PCR. Revealing up-regulation of CRH, CRHBP and CRHR2, normalized against β-Actin, Elav1 and Gap43 housekeeping genes. In situ hybridization revealed no spatial changes in CRH, CRH-BP and POMC with animals at the same stage. Behavioural stress-reactivity differences in 6-months old adults that had been exposed developmentally to ethanol were assessed using novel tank diving and thigmotaxis. Both assays indicated a decrease in stress-like behaviour due to early ethanol exposure compared to controls (P<0.05, n=5 both). Finally, cortisol levels were assayed from 9dpf larvae and 6-month-old adults that had been treated with ethanol during early development showed a significant reduction in cortisol output when air-exposed stressed compared to controls (P=0.04, n=5). Conclusion: Early ethanol exposure produced significant changes in cortisol, HPI gene mRNA expression and stress-reactive behaviour in 9dpf animals. Changes in cortisol and behaviour were still detected in 6-months old adults, developmentally treated with ethanol, indicating that early ethanol exposure has permanent effects on the HPI axis. 5 As our data contradicts the findings in mammalian literature where early ethanol exposure increases stress-like behaviour in later life, it is also possible that more permanent effects of PNE in mammals may arise through maternal-offspring interactions, during and post gestation, such as breastfeeding and maternal grooming of the offspring, which are absent in the zebrafish model.
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