Developmental Neurotoxicity of the Harmful Algal Bloom Toxin Domoic Acid: Cellular and Molecular Mechanisms Underlying Altered Behavior in the Zebrafish Model

Environ Health Perspect. 2020 Nov;128(11):117002. doi: 10.1289/EHP6652. Epub 2020 Nov 4.


Background: Harmful algal blooms (HABs) produce potent neurotoxins that threaten human health, but current regulations may not be protective of sensitive populations. Early life exposure to low levels of the HAB toxin domoic acid (DomA) produces long-lasting behavioral deficits in rodent and primate models; however, the mechanisms involved are unknown. The zebrafish is a powerful in vivo vertebrate model system for exploring cellular processes during development and thus may help to elucidate mechanisms of DomA developmental neurotoxicity.

Objectives: We used the zebrafish model to investigate how low doses of DomA affect the developing nervous system, including windows of susceptibility to DomA exposure, structural and molecular changes in the nervous system, and the link to behavioral alterations.

Methods: To identify potential windows of susceptibility, DomA (0.09-0.18 ng) was delivered to zebrafish through caudal vein microinjection during distinct periods in early neurodevelopment. Following exposure, structural and molecular targets were identified using live imaging of transgenic fish and RNA sequencing. To assess the functional consequences of exposures, we quantified startle behavior in response to acoustic/vibrational stimuli.

Results: Larvae exposed to DomA at 2 d postfertilization (dpf), but not at 1 or 4 dpf, showed consistent deficits in startle behavior at 7 dpf, including lower responsiveness and altered kinematics. Similarly, myelination in the spinal cord was disorganized after exposure at 2 dpf but not 1 or 4 dpf. Time-lapse imaging revealed disruption of the initial stages of myelination. DomA exposure at 2 dpf down-regulated genes required for maintaining myelin structure and the axonal cytoskeleton.

Discussion: These results in zebrafish reveal a developmental window of susceptibility to DomA-induced behavioral deficits and identify altered gene expression and disrupted myelin structure as possible mechanisms. The results establish a zebrafish model for investigating the mechanisms of developmental DomA toxicity, including effects with potential relevance to exposed sensitive human populations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects*
  • Harmful Algal Bloom
  • Kainic Acid / analogs & derivatives*
  • Kainic Acid / toxicity
  • Nervous System / drug effects*
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / veterinary
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / toxicity*
  • Zebrafish / physiology


  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • domoic acid
  • Kainic Acid