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Depressed fish controversial tool in developing anti-depressants

Scientists consider fish to be a promising animal to use in the development of new anti-depressants.

Zebrafish are currently being researched at Troy University in Alabama to create new medications to combat the symptoms of depression in humans, the New York Times reported. Fish are apparently a reliable animal to use in identifying depression because of something called the “novel tank test.” If a fish dropped into a new tank is swimming around the top of the tank within five minutes, it’s not depressed. But, if it’s skulking around in the bottom half, it is.

“The neurochemistry (between fish and people) is so similar that it’s scary,” Troy University biology and environmental sciences professor Julian Pittman told the Times.

While some things may be similar in the neurological makeup of humans and our fish friends, some who have experienced depression first-hand may question if a fish can possibly feel the very same way they have. About 16 million people had at least one major depressive episode in 2012, according to The National Institute of Mental Health.

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“We cannot ask animals how they feel,” director of the Center for Depression, Anxiety and Stress Research at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Diego Pizzagalli, told the newspaper. “(And fish cannot) capture the entire spectrum of depression as we know it.”

But the word “depression” seems to be the correct terminology for these low-swimming fish because they also lose interest in things like food, toys and investigating their surroundings, just like people.

“Depressed people are withdrawn,” behavioral biologist Cumum Brown told the Times. “The same is true of fish.”

And a lack of stimulation seems to be the major culprit when it comes to domesticated fish. They’re “naturally curious,” so a depressed fish may also just be a bored fish if its tank surroundings are sparse or unstimulating. Fish need plants, obstacles and a changing rotation of new objects to keep them engaged and upbeat.

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This is not unlike how people can fend off depression by redecorating their homes by painting the walls, introducing plants or reducing clutter, as Everyday Health reported.

“One of the things we’re finding (is) that fish are naturally curious and seek novel things out,” Penn State University fishery professor Victoria Braithwaite told the paper.

“A goldfish bowl, for example,” Brown said, “is the worst possible situation.”

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