A tiny fish is helping scientists understand how the human brain processes sound, while also giving insight to autism spectrum disorder.
Queensland Brain Institute’s Associate Professor Ethan Scott and Dr Lena Constantin used zebrafish that carry the same genetic mutations as humans with Fragile X syndrome and autism, and discovered the neural networks and pathways that produce the hypersensitivities to sound in both species.
“Loud noises often cause sensory overload and anxiety in people with autism and Fragile X syndrome — sensitivity to sound is common to both conditions,” Dr Constantin said.
“We think the brain is transmitting more auditory information because it is being filtered and adjusted differently.
“Half of males and one fifth of females with Fragile X syndrome also meet the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder.”
Dr Gilles Vanwalleghem and Rebecca Poulsen were part of the team that studied how zebrafish make sense of their world, in order to explore how neurons work together to process information.
“Fragile X syndrome is caused by the disruption of one gene, so we can disrupt that single gene in zebrafish and see the effects,” Dr Vanwalleghem said.
“We are able to study the whole brain of the zebrafish larvae under the microscope and see the activity of each brain cell individually.”
Dr Constantin said the team recorded the brain activity of zebrafish larvae whilst showing them movies or exposing them to bursts of sound.
“The movies simulate movement or predators — the reaction to these visual stimuli was the same for fish with Fragile X mutations, and those without,” Dr Constantin said.
“But when we gave the fish a burst of white noise, there was a dramatic difference in the brain activity in Fragile X model fish.”