Non-associative learning in larval zebrafish

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2008 Apr;33(5):1206-15. doi: 10.1038/sj.npp.1301489. Epub 2007 Jun 20.


Habituation, where a response is reduced when exposed to a continuous stimulus is one of the simplest forms of non-associative learning and has been shown in a number of organisms from sea slugs to rodents. However, very little has been reported in the zebrafish, a model that is gaining popularity for high-throughput compound screens. Furthermore, since most of the studies involving learning and memory in zebrafish have been conducted in adults, we sought to determine if zebrafish larvae could display non-associative learning and whether it could be modulated by compounds identified in previous rodent studies. We demonstrated that zebrafish larvae (7 days post fertilization) exhibit iterative reduction in a startle response to a series of acoustic stimuli. Furthermore, this reduction satisfied criteria for habituation: spontaneous recovery, more rapid reductions in startle to shorter intertrial intervals and dishabituation. We then investigated the pathways mediating this behavior using established compounds in learning and memory. Administration of rolipram (PDE4 inhibitor), donepezil (acetylcholinesterase inhibitor), and memantine (N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) receptor antagonist) all increased the acoustic startle response and decreased habituation in the larvae, similar to previous rodent studies. Further studies demonstrated that NMDA blocked the memantine response and the effect of donepezil was blocked by mecamylamine but not atropine suggesting that the donepezil response was mediated by nicotinic rather than muscarinic receptors. Zebrafish larvae possess numerous advantages for medium to high-throughput screening; the model described herein therefore offers the potential to screen for additional compounds for further study on cognition function.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Age Factors
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Area Under Curve
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Radiation
  • Enzyme Inhibitors / administration & dosage
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Agonists / pharmacology
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Habituation, Psychophysiologic*
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Larva / physiology*
  • Memantine / pharmacology
  • N-Methylaspartate / pharmacology
  • Reflex, Startle / drug effects
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology*
  • Zebrafish


  • Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Agonists
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Antagonists
  • N-Methylaspartate
  • Memantine