The Zebrafish Phenomenon

Words by Bella Spencer

Art by Ana Ovilo

A few miles outside of central Edinburgh a small room is lined from floor to ceiling with tanks full of zebrafish. It is not a disappointing zoo or a new Damien Hirst installation; it is the Centre for Neuroregeneration (CNR). The CNR is a hub for research projects focused towards neural development, injury and repair. These projects, that aim to understand the mechanisms behind neurodegenerative diseases, attract accomplished researchers from all around the world and… me.

I am an undergraduate neuroscience student that has somehow managed to blag an internship in the CNR working with some of the brightest brains in the business. These scientists are trying to understand what allows zebrafish to have the superpower that humans can only dream of – the ability to regenerate their neurons.

Unlike zebrafish, humans have a very limited capacity to replace neurons lost by injury or disease. When neurons die, a scar is formed, and the environment in which the neuron resides becomes inhibitory to growth. These events result in the body being unable to complete repair or replacement of the neuron, leading to the catastrophic effects of neuron injury and disease – in the case of motor neurone disease (MND), neuron death leads to the loss of control of voluntary muscles resulting in the inability to walk, talk, and eventually to breathe.

Despite appearances, zebrafish have a similarly organized nervous system to humans and a high degree of conservation of genes associated with neurodegenerative diseases, making them a good model organism for research. The logic follows that researchers can utilize this species to discover what initiates neuron degeneration and how neuron repair is permitted. If successful, a whole realm of therapeutic tools, to aid recovery from neuron degeneration, could be unlocked.

A discovery of such a nature would have a massive significance for the sufferers of many neurogenerative diseases, including the MND community. Currently, there is no known cure for the disease, which affects around 5000 adults in the UK, and drug therapy only has the ability to prolong life for an average of two or three months. While extension to life is invaluable, the quality of life in those weeks is far from desirable. Therefore, the possibility of a greater understanding of the disease, and subsequent therapeutic tools for the treatment, is more than exciting. It seems beyond the realms of science fiction, let alone science, that a species that has such a different evolutionary history to ours could allow us to discover therapies for human diseases.

My interest in MND and its therapy stems from the diagnosis of my godmother, Rachel, in 2007. At the time I was a gawky 11 year old who was hugely enamored by the creativity and punk-esque glamour that radiated from Rachel. She was utterly cool. A trip to see her meant padding around her trendy house introducing my newly gifted toys to her, and her husbands’, kooky collection of ornaments while my mum and her cackled about God knows what (probably their past mischief and their current shoe collection).

Rachel and I kicking back in 1996.

The night I found out about her diagnosis is one of my strongest childhood memories and still triggers that sickly feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was a weird series of coincidences. That evening, my parents and I had watched our ritual Sunday night episode of the Simpsons. This episode had featured Stephen Hawkins, the British scientist and long-term sufferer of MND. I was totally confused by his ‘character’ and proceeded to talk over the remaining scenes asking why he talked like a robot. My parents explained about his condition and his incredible profession.

A few hours later the phone rang and the bad news was delivered. Understandably everyone was totally distraught and I lay under my duvet in a state of confusion. Between heavy sobs I asked my Dad why she had developed MND. He wiped the snot and tears from my face and said ‘Sometimes, darling, shit just happens’.

His response will stay with me, and remain a motto of mine forever. 95% of sufferers have no known cause, and after watching the devastating effect MND had on Rachel, and everyone she knew, I developed a real hunger to help discover why exactly the shit that is MND does happen.

I have the pipe dream that one day I will have a brain as bright as those in the CNR, and will have a eureka moment that will lead to the end of the sufferance of MND patients. But for now, while boffin-brain status is not my reality, I am settling for learning slowly, but surely, about the mechanisms of neuron regeneration in zebrafish while raising money and awareness for MND -*cue the mortifying memory of running the Junior Great North Run head to toe in lipstick and glitter to fundraise in memory of the lovely, cool and ever special Rachel*.

Fightback Funds

<- Learn more and donate <- Read about the fun, fast and fabulous cycling campaign set up in Rachel’s memory.

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