Fadi Issa, assistant professor of neurobiology, examines a group of zebrafish in his lab. Issa is exploring the connection between social hierarchy in zebrafish and its effect on behavior and neurological systems to better understand human brain development. (Photos by Matt Smith)

An East Carolina University researcher is studying the effects of social behavior on nervous system function and development in a most unlikely place ­– a fish tank.

Spearheaded by a four-year, $470,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Fadi Issa, an assistant professor of neurobiology, is exploring the connection between social hierarchy and its effect on behavior and neurological development in zebrafish.

Issa, who joined ECU in 2014 after a six-year postdoctoral stint at UCLA, said that by observing zebrafish, researchers can learn a lot about how our relationships affect our behavior and brain development.

“We’re trying to understand how our social interactions with friends and colleagues shape who we are at the nervous-system level,” Issa said. “We’re asking, ‘How do our social interactions and our place within our social structure shape our brain functionally, morphologically and chemically?’

“We’re social animals,” he said. “Some of us have more dominant personality traits than others and some of us are higher up on the social structure ladder than others. We behave differently depending on who we interact with. The differences in these behavior patterns are not simply behavior manifestations, but they have physiological bases as well.”

Zebrafish make an ideal animal model for the study, Issa said, because of their similarities to humans and because of the way their bodies develop.

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Originally published August 6, 2018.

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