Dr. Alan Fine
Dr. Alan Fine and his research team are discovering how people learn and remember by examining the brains of tiny transparent fish called zebrafish. “We can actually see into the fish’s brains under a suitable microscope. Our goal is to trace the functional changes that take place as the fish learn,” says Dr. Fine, a Professor in Dalhousie’s Departments of Physiology & Biophysics, Medicine (Neurology), Pediatrics, and the School of Biomedical Engineering.
Dr. Fine and his colleagues have devised apparatus that let them train the zebrafish, by exposing them to various sights, smells and sound, and then testing their recall of these stimuli. Because the fish have been genetically engineered to express fluorescent "indicator" proteins in their brain cells that become brighter when they are active, the researchers hope to see under a microscope how neural pathways in the fish's brains change as they learn.
As Dr. Fine explains, as we learn, some connections between brain cells - called "synapses" - become stronger and others become weaker. To retain information, we need to maintain the new, altered connections. "Networks of neurons with the right kinds of modifiable connections can store and recall information effectively," he notes. "If the connections between neurons become less changeable, it becomes difficult to lay down new memories or retrieve previously stored information."
By learning what biochemical changes take place as synaptic connections are formed, strengthened, weakened, or broken, Dr. Fine and his team hope to identify potential targets for new drugs that could be used to treat or prevent memory loss. His work has clear implications for Alzheimer's disease, but also for schizophrenia, autism and other cognitive disorders.
“Understanding the fundamental processes of synapse modification can guide us in developing effective therapies for devastating neurologcial and psychiatric problems,” says Dr. Fine.