Zebra fish

How Zebrafish are helping us in the fight against nicotine addiction

Discover how Dr Matt Parker's research could save millions in NHS costs, and countless lives 

Zebrafish could hold the key to helping more smokers quit and save thousands of lives and millions in NHS costs - according to new research from our behavioural neuroscientist, Dr Matt Parker.

Dr Parker’s research focuses on the behavioural traits that reduce self-control. By understanding the brain’s regions and the genetic, developmental biology of impulsive behaviour, he aims to reveal the mechanisms in the brain that underline addiction.

By focusing on a person’s impulsive behaviours, he hopes to develop a new breed of personalised addiction treatments too. To help him achieve this, his research at Queen Mary University of London uses zebrafish and nicotine.

Dr Parker said: 'The fish are in a tank with two different patterns on either side – a side with spots and a side with strips. In the beginning, they have no preference and happily swim around the tank.

'We isolate them on one side of the tank and give them a drug. Then, we isolate them on the other side without the drug. And after a short time, they always chose to swim around on the side where they had the drugs.'

Dr Parker and his team are now studying the brain activity of those zebrafish with a higher preference for nicotine, to see which neural circuits in the brain are most active when the drug is present.

In their sensitivity to drugs, the fish have the same circuits as humans. And one of the drugs they really like is nicotine

Dr Matt Parker, Senior Lecturer in Behavioural Pharmacology

Dr Parker's research reveals that fish with a particular gene knocked-out show higher nicotine preference. Later research confirmed that humans who struggle to quit smoking or smoke heavily have variants in that same gene, suggesting that fish are an excellent model organism for studying the basis of addiction to tobacco smoking.

'We are not suggesting that humans who smoke heavily have some form of genetic abnormality,' he said. 'But it might be that this gene knockout is a marker for something.

'Maybe they prefer nicotine and have some difference in nicotine receptors in the brain. The more we understand, the more confident we can be about creating treatment targeted to individual needs.'

It's this commitment to personalised addiction treatment that drives Dr Parker's research.

'We are entering a time in the history of medicine where personalised treatment is becoming the most sensible way to deal with any kind of illness,' he said. 'This has been the norm for cancer for decades now, but for a psychiatric disease, we tend to treat it as a one size fits all.

‘This makes no sense because psychiatric diseases are so complex. They involve different personality characteristics, genetic pathways, and biological mechanisms.

'Medicine and treatments for people who are already addicted and struggling with relapse need [to be] focused. Without that they may never be able to stop.'