Moderate developmental alcohol exposure reduces repetitive alternation in a zebrafish model of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Madeleine Cleal. Matthew O Parker



The damaging effects of alcohol on a developing fetus are well known and cause a range of conditions known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). High levels of alcohol exposure lead to physical deformity and severe cognitive deficits, but more moderate exposure leads to a range of subtle cognitive effects such as reduced social behavior, higher propensity to develop addictions, and reduced spatial working memory. Previous studies have demonstrated that following exposure to relatively low levels of ethanol during early brain development (equivalent in humans to moderate exposure) zebrafish display a range of social and behavioral differences. Here, our aim was to test the hypothesis that moderate developmental ethanol exposure would affect aspects of learning and memory in zebrafish. In order to do this, we exposed zebrafish embryos to 20mM [0.12% v/v] ethanol from 2 to 9 dpf to model the effects of moderate prenatal ethanol (MPE) exposure. At 3 months old, adult fish were tested for appetitive and aversive learning, and for spatial alternation in a novel unconditioned y-maze protocol. We found that MPE did not affect appetitive or aversive learning, but exposed-fish showed a robust reduction in repetitive alternations in the y-maze when compared to age matched controls. This study confirms that moderate levels of ethanol exposure to developing embryos have subtle effects on spatial working memory in adulthood. Our data thus suggest that zebrafish may be a promising model system for studying the effects of alcohol on learning and decision-making, but also for developing treatments and interventions to reduce the negative effects of prenatal alcohol.


zebrafish; behaviour; automation