One of the most commonly used behavioral endpoints measured in preclinical studies using rodent models is thigmotaxis (or "wall-hugging"). Thigmotaxis is a well-validated index of anxiety in animals and humans. While assays measuring thigmotaxis in adult zebrafish have been developed, a thigmotaxis assay has not yet been validated in larval zebrafish. Here we present a novel assay for measurement of thigmotaxis in zebrafish larvae that is triggered by a sudden change in illumination (i.e. sudden light-to-darkness transition) and performed in a standard 24-well plate. We show that zebrafish larvae as young as 5 days post fertilization respond to this challenge by engaging in thigmotaxis. Thigmotaxis was significantly attenuated by anxiolytic (diazepam) and significantly enhanced by anxiogenic (caffeine) drugs, thus representing the first validated thigmotaxis assay for larval zebrafish. We also show that exposure to sudden darkness per se may represent an anxiogenic situation for larval zebrafish since less contrasting light-to-darkness transitions (achieved by lowering darkness degrees) significantly decreased thigmotaxis levels in a manner similar to what was achieved with diazepam. These findings suggest that stimuli such as exposure to sudden darkness could be used proficiently to trigger the expression of anxiety-like behaviors in laboratory settings. In sum, this is a versatile protocol allowing testing of both anxiolytic and anxiogenic drugs in a cost-effective manner (only 10 min). This assay is also amenable to medium to high-throughput capacity while constituting a valuable tool for stress and central nervous system research as well as for preclinical drug screening and discovery.
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