Zebrafish Research Offers an Exciting Window Into Parkinson’s Disease

Lori DePorter avatar

by Lori DePorter |

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In May 2020, Parkinson’s News Today‘s Joana Carvalho wrote about a study published in the journal eLife. The study describes a new tool that would allow scientists to study the effects of mitochondrial damage, which could ultimately help restore neuron function in people with neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease.

I was particularly interested in this study because it features the University of Pittsburgh, my alma mater, and zebrafish. These small, tropical fish have become a valuable research tool in recent decades, as they have many characteristics that make them an effective model for studying human diseases. For example, as the YourGenome website notes, “Zebrafish embryos are nearly transparent which allows researchers to easily examine the development of internal structures.”

The eLife study brought me back to spring 2016 — not long after my Parkinson’s diagnosis — when Pitt Med Magazine, produced by the University of Pittsburgh, published an article called “Fishing for Clarity.” The article describes the promising Parkinson’s research being done with zebrafish and features several prominent researchers, including Edward Burton, MD, DPhil, who serves as an associate professor of neurology at Pitt.

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A proud alumnus of the university, I contacted Burton, who graciously invited me to his lab to “see” the zebrafish. I’d envisioned a huge tank of them, but instead, I was led to a microscope. I hopped up on the stool and looked into the eyepiece. Nothing. Oh, no — I was too short to see through the microscope. My husband, Mike, saw my reaction, adjusted the eyepiece, and there it was: tiny, colorful hope.

Reconnecting with the Burton Lab

Earlier this year, I reconnected with Burton in hopes of interviewing him and writing about the experience. However, COVID-19 rules did not allow a visit to the Burton Lab. Instead, we discussed the zebrafish model via Zoom and email. The topics of mitochondria and reactive oxygen species (ROS) came up repeatedly.

Mitochondria are the parts of cells that produce energy. In Parkinson’s, they don’t function properly and emit toxic waste products called ROS. According to a Burton Lab research update from April, “ROS can damage other components of cells and are probably key to understanding what goes wrong in dopamine-producing nerve cells in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease.”

Using zebrafish, researchers are able to study disease on a cellular level and better understand how certain mechanisms can go awry in the brain. This may lead to the development of new treatments for Parkinson’s.

Advances in the zebrafish model

Burton explained that, thanks to a global collaboration of researchers, the last few years have brought significant developments in the zebrafish model, several of which involve mitochondria and ROS.

One advancement is that researchers have created genetically modified zebrafish that make a special fluorescent protein in their dopamine-producing nerve cells. The protein, invented by professor Tobias Dick at his lab in Heidelberg, Germany, reveals different colors depending on the level of ROS exposure. “Labeling proteins is routine — but seeing ROS (which are short-lived and highly reactive) in a living brain is extraordinary!” Burton wrote to me in an email.

Researchers have also generated a genetically modified zebrafish in which they can switch on ROS production within mitochondria in specific parts of the living brain using a red light or a laser. This approach was invented by professor Marcel Bruchez at Carnegie Mellon University and is currently being used to understand whether nerve cells can be rescued after ROS has damaged them.

Perhaps zebrafish will allow researchers to answer some major questions about Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases. This transparent little fish provides me with hope for the future of Parkinson’s research and treatments. In the meantime, let’s continue spreading awareness about the impact of the disease.

Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.


James pringle avatar

James pringle

This connection between aluminum and mitochondrial damage raises the question about the use of aluminum in beer and pop cans rather than glass !


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