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The complexity of the brain makes it difficult to predict how a drug will affect behavior without direct testing in live animals. Rihel et al. (p. 348) developed a high-throughput assay to assess the effects of thousands of drugs on sleep/wake behaviors of zebrafish larvae. The data set reveals a broad conservation of zebrafish and mammalian sleep/wake pharmacology and identifies pathways that regulate sleep. Moreover, the biological targets of poorly characterized small molecules can be predicted by matching their behavioral profiles to those of well-known drugs. Thus, behavioral profiling in zebrafish offers a cost-effective way to characterize neuroactive drugs and to predict biological targets of novel compounds.
A major obstacle for the discovery of psychoactive drugs is the inability to predict how small molecules will alter complex behaviors. We report the development and application of a high-throughput, quantitative screen for drugs that alter the behavior of larval zebrafish. We found that the multidimensional nature of observed phenotypes enabled the hierarchical clustering of molecules according to shared behaviors. Behavioral profiling revealed conserved functions of psychotropic molecules and predicted the mechanisms of action of poorly characterized compounds. In addition, behavioral profiling implicated new factors such as ether-a-go-go–related gene (ERG) potassium channels and immunomodulators in the control of rest and locomotor activity. These results demonstrate the power of high-throughput behavioral profiling in zebrafish to discover and characterize psychotropic drugs and to dissect the pharmacology of complex behaviors.