Nitrate and nitrite exposure leads to mild anxiogenic-like behavior and alters brain metabolomic profile in zebrafish

PLoS One. 2020 Dec 31;15(12):e0240070. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0240070. eCollection 2020.


Dietary nitrate lowers blood pressure and improves athletic performance in humans, yet data supporting observations that it may increase cerebral blood flow and improve cognitive performance are mixed. We tested the hypothesis that nitrate and nitrite treatment would improve indicators of learning and cognitive performance in a zebrafish (Danio rerio) model. We utilized targeted and untargeted liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) analysis to examine the extent to which treatment resulted in changes in nitrate or nitrite concentrations in the brain and altered the brain metabolome. Fish were exposed to sodium nitrate (606.9 mg/L), sodium nitrite (19.5 mg/L), or control water for 2-4 weeks and free swim, startle response, and shuttle box assays were performed. Nitrate and nitrite treatment did not change fish weight, length, predator avoidance, or distance and velocity traveled in an unstressed environment. Nitrate- and nitrite-treated fish initially experienced more negative reinforcement and increased time to decision in the shuttle box assay, which is consistent with a decrease in associative learning or executive function however, over multiple trials, all treatment groups demonstrated behaviors associated with learning. Nitrate and nitrite treatment was associated with mild anxiogenic-like behavior but did not alter epinephrine, norepinephrine or dopamine levels. Targeted metabolomics analysis revealed no significant increase in brain nitrate or nitrite concentrations with treatment. Untargeted metabolomics analysis found 47 metabolites whose abundance was significantly altered in the brain with nitrate and nitrite treatment. Overall, the depletion in brain metabolites is plausibly associated with the regulation of neuronal activity including statistically significant reductions in the inhibitory neurotransmitter γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA; 18-19%), and its precursor, glutamine (17-22%). Nitrate treatment caused significant depletion in the brain concentration of fatty acids including linoleic acid (LA) by 50% and arachidonic acid (ARA) by 80%; nitrite treatment caused depletion of LA by ~90% and ARA by 60%, change which could alter the function of dopaminergic neurons and affect behavior. Nitrate and nitrite treatment did not adversely affect multiple parameters of zebrafish health. It is plausible that indirect NO-mediated mechanisms may be responsible for the nitrate and nitrite-mediated effects on the brain metabolome and behavior in zebrafish.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety / chemically induced
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Arachidonic Acid / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Arachidonic Acid / metabolism
  • Association Learning / drug effects*
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects
  • Body Size / drug effects
  • Body Weight / drug effects
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Epinephrine / metabolism
  • Executive Function / drug effects*
  • Female
  • Glutamine / metabolism
  • Linoleic Acid / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Linoleic Acid / metabolism
  • Male
  • Metabolome / drug effects*
  • Metabolome / physiology
  • Nitrates / pharmacology*
  • Norepinephrine / metabolism
  • Reflex, Startle / drug effects
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Sodium Nitrite / pharmacology*
  • Zebrafish / metabolism
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism


  • Nitrates
  • Glutamine
  • Arachidonic Acid
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid
  • sodium nitrate
  • Linoleic Acid
  • Sodium Nitrite
  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine
  • Epinephrine