Fish depression is not a joke

The problem with small fish tanks or containers is not just the lack of space for exploration, but also that the water quality tends to be unstable and there may not be sufficient oxygen.
The problem with small fish tanks or containers is not just the lack of space for exploration, but also that the water quality tends to be unstable and there may not be sufficient oxygen.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The trigger for most domestic fish depression is probably lack of stimulation, experts say

Can a fish be depressed?

This question has been floating around my head ever since I spent a night in a hotel across from an excruciatingly sad-looking Siamese fighting fish. His name was Bruce Lee, according to a sign beneath his little bowl.

There we were, trying to enjoy a free Bloody Mary on the last day of our honeymoon, and there was Bruce Lee, totally still, his lower fin grazing the clear faux rocks on the bottom of his home.

When he did finally move, just slightly, I got the sense that he would prefer to be dead.

The pleasant woman at the front desk assured me that he was well taken care of.

Was I simply anthropomorphising Bruce Lee, incorrectly assuming his lethargy was a sign of mental distress? When I sought answers from scientists, I assumed that they would find the question preposterous. But they did not. Not at all.

It turns out that not only can our gilled friends become depressed, but some scientists consider fish to be a promising animal model for developing antidepressants.

It turns out that not only can our gilled friends become depressed, but some scientists consider fish to be a promising animal model for developing antidepressants. New research has been radically shifting the way that scientists think about fish cognition, building a case that pet and owner are not nearly as different as many assume.

New research, I would learn, has been radically shifting the way that scientists think about fish cognition, building a case that pet and owner are not nearly as different as many assume. "The neurochemistry is so similar that it's scary," said Assistant Professor Julian Pittman from the department of biological and environmental sciences at Troy University in Alabama, where he is working to develop new medications to treat depression, with the help of tiny zebrafish.

We tend to think of them as simple organisms, "but there is a lot we don't give fish credit for".

Prof Pittman likes working with fish, in part, because they are so obvious about their depression.

He can reliably test the effectiveness of antidepressants with something called the "novel tank test".

A zebrafish gets dropped in a new tank. If after five minutes it is hanging out in the lower half, it's depressed. If it's swimming up top - its usual inclination when exploring a new environment - then it's not.

The severity of the depression, he says, can be measured by quantity of time at the top versus the bottom, all of which seemed to confirm my suspicions about Bruce Lee.

This, of course, may sound fishy to any of the one in six people who has experienced clinical depression.

How could a striped minnow relate to what you've been through? Is "depression" the right word?

While scientists have used animals, like mice, to study emotional problems for decades, the relevance of those models to human experience is sketchy at best.

There's the obvious issue that "we cannot ask animals how they feel", said Professor Diego Pizzagalli, director of the Centre For Depression, Anxiety and Stress Research at Harvard Medical School.

Though researchers may find parallels in serotonin and dopamine fluctuations, neither fish nor rat can "capture the entire spectrum of depression as we know it", Prof Pizzagalli said.

There is a heated debate in the fish research community about whether anxious or depressed is a more appropriate term. But what has convinced Prof Pittman, and others, over the past 10 years is watching the way the zebrafish lose interest in just about everything: food, toys, exploration - just like clinically depressed people.

"You can tell," said Associate Professor Culum Brown, a behavioural biologist at Macquarie University in Sydney who has published more than 100 papers on fish cognition.

"Depressed people are withdrawn. The same is true of fish."

The trigger for most domestic fish depression is probably lack of stimulation, according to fisheries and biology professor Victoria Braithwaite at Penn State University, who studies fish intelligence and fish preferences.

Study after study shows how fish are defying aquatic stereotypes: Some fish use tools, others can recognise individual faces. "One of the things we're finding is that fish are naturally curious and seek novel things out," said Prof Braithwaite.

In other words, your goldfish is probably bored. To help ward off depression, she urges introducing new objects to the tank or switching up the location of items.

Prof Brown agrees, pointing to an experiment he conducted that showed that if you leave a fish in an enriched, physically complex environment - meaning lot of plants to nibble on and cages to swim through - it decreases stress and increases brain growth.

The problem with small tanks is not just the lack of space for exploration, said Prof Brown, but also that the water quality tends to be unstable and there may not be sufficient oxygen. "A goldfish bowl for example is the worst possible situation."

If you own fish, you might want to consider where Prof Brown keeps his: an extensively landscaped 2m tank. He recommends a 1m tank with "lots of plants and stuff" for your average betta.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2017, with the headline 'Fish depression is not a joke'. Print Edition | Subscribe