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‘Math’ genes used by fish to count may help us treat human neurodevelopmental diseases


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Fish help researchers trace origins of how brain calculates math, reports a review in Boundaries in Neuroanatomy† An international team has reviewed more than 200 publications, which together show that fish perceive quantities with parts of their brains similar to those of mammals and birds. Research is still underway to find the specific brain circuits that enable the processing of numbers, but these findings could eventually help treat human diseases that impair the ability to do math.

“Fish are similar to other animals in possessing a sense of quantity,” said corresponding author Prof. Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trento in Italy. “There are species, especially zebrafish, that are ideal models for studying the molecular and genetic basis of quantity sense. This could have important implications for neurodevelopmental diseases that affect number knowledge, such as developmental dyscalculia, which affects the numeracy of up to 6 % of children.”

The video shows experiments described in Prof Vallortigara’s laboratory and reported in Messina et al (2022). On the left is shown an example of the procedure of habituation of a zebrafish to a particular numerosity; on the right, one can notice that during the withdrawal test, when the numerosity is changed abruptly, the zebrafish show increased proximity to the stimulus to explore the novelty. Controls showed that zebrafish responded to numerosity as such and not just to changes in area or spatial positions of the dots. Credit: Giorgio Vallortigara / University of Trento

Lessons from fish

Estimating the amount is essential for a fish’s survival. Vallortigara and his collaborators began a collection of behavioral studies that showed that fish compete with mammals and birds in recognizing the difference between larger and smaller quantities, for example, food or other fish.

Many studies have also used behavior to try to understand how fish measure quantity, but Vallortigara’s team found that this required a closer look at the cellular and genetic level. To answer these questions, researchers have used brain imaging to show that fish use the same parts of their brains as many other vertebrates.

“Another open question is whether numerical quantities are really computed as an abstract property or whether animals always think about numbers based on other cues from their environment (such as area, contour length or density),” Vallortigara said. “However, this review describes experiments showing that pure multiplicity is indeed used by fish.”

The Evolution of Mathematics

On an even more granular level, other studies have come closer to finding the specific neurons that make up the circuits that process quantities, including those specific to discrete quantities. Genetic analyzes also reveal exactly how similar these strategies are across species.

“A big ongoing question is whether the mechanisms for quantity knowledge in the different parts of the animal kingdom evolved from a common ancestor or separately as a result of convergent evolution under similar selective pressures,” Vallortigara added.

On a genetic level, model systems such as zebrafish are surprisingly close to humans, and many researchers have used zebrafish to better understand learning disabilities in humans.

Experiments suggest archer fish can discriminate between numbers

More information:
Andrea Messina et al, Quantity as a fish sees it: behavior and neurobiology, Boundaries in Neuroanatomy (2022). DOI: 10.3389/fnana.2022.943504www.frontiersin.org/articles/1 … ana.2022.943504/full

Quote: ‘Math’ genes used by fish for counting could help us treat human neurodevelopmental diseases (2022, July 14) retrieved July 14, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-07 -math-genes-fish-human-neurodevelopmental.html

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