Developmental exposure to a complex PAH mixture causes persistent behavioral effects in naive Fundulus heteroclitus (killifish) but not in a population of PAH-adapted killifish.

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Acute exposures to some individual polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and complex PAH mixtures are known to cause cardiac malformations and edema in the developing fish embryo. However, the heart is not the only organ impacted by developmental PAH exposure. The developing brain is also affected, resulting in lasting behavioral dysfunction. While acute exposures to some PAHs are teratogenically lethal in fish, little is known about the later life consequences of early life, lower dose subteratogenic PAH exposures. We sought to determine and characterize the long-term behavioral consequences of subteratogenic developmental PAH mixture exposure in both naive killifish and PAH-adapted killifish using sediment pore water derived from the Atlantic Wood Industries Superfund Site. Killifish offspring were embryonically treated with two low-level PAH mixture dilutions of Elizabeth River sediment extract (ERSE) (TPAH 5.04 μg/L and 50.4 μg/L) at 24h post fertilization. Following exposure, killifish were raised to larval, juvenile, and adult life stages and subjected to a series of behavioral tests including: a locomotor activity test (4 days post-hatch), a sensorimotor response tap/habituation test (3 months post hatch), and a novel tank diving and exploration test (3months post hatch). Killifish were also monitored for survival at 1, 2, and 5 months over 5-month rearing period. Developmental PAH exposure caused short-term as well as persistent behavioral impairments in naive killifish. In contrast, the PAH-adapted killifish did not show behavioral alterations following PAH exposure. PAH mixture exposure caused increased mortality in reference killifish over time; yet, the PAH-adapted killifish, while demonstrating long-term rearing mortality, had no significant changes in mortality associated with ERSE exposure. This study demonstrated that early embryonic exposure to PAH-contaminated sediment pore water caused long-term locomotor and behavioral alterations in killifish, and that locomotor alterations could be observed in early larval stages. Additionally, our study highlights the resistance to behavioral alterations caused by low-level PAH mixture exposure in the adapted killifish population. Furthermore, this is the first longitudinal behavioral study to use killifish, an environmentally important estuarine teleost fish, and this testing framework can be used for future contaminant assessment.





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Brown, DR, JM Bailey, AN Oliveri, ED Levin and RT Di Giulio (2016). Developmental exposure to a complex PAH mixture causes persistent behavioral effects in naive Fundulus heteroclitus (killifish) but not in a population of PAH-adapted killifish. Neurotoxicol Teratol, 53. pp. 55–63. 10.1016/ Retrieved from

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Edward Daniel Levin

Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Dr. Levin is Chief of the Neurobehavioral Research Lab in the Psychiatry Department of Duke University Medical Center. His primary academic appointment is as Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He also has secondary appointments in the Department Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke. His primary research effort is to understand basic neural interactions underlying cognitive function and addiction and to apply this knowledge to better understand cognitive dysfunction and addiction disorders and to develop novel therapeutic treatments.

The three main research components of his laboratory are focused on the themes of the basic neurobiology of cognition and addiction, neurobehavioral toxicology and the development of novel therapeutic treatments for cognitive dysfunction and substance abuse. Currently, our principal research focus concerns nicotine. We have documented the basic effects of nicotine on learning memory and attention as well as nicotine self-administration. We are continuing with more mechanistic studies in rat models using selective lesions, local infusions and neurotransmitter interaction studies. We have found that nicotine improves memory performance not only in normal rats, but also in rats with lesions of hippocampal and basal forebrain connections. We are concentrating on alpha7 and alpha4beta2 nicotinic receptor subtypes in the hippocampus, amygdala , thalamus and frontal cortex and how they interact with dopamine D1 and D2 and glutamate NMDA systems with regard to memory and addiction. I am also conducting studies on human cognitive behavior. We have current studies to assess nicotine effects on attention, memory and mental processing speed in schizophrenia, Alzheimer's Disease and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. In the area of neurobehavioral toxicology, I have continuing projects to characterize the adverse effects of prenatal and adolescent nicotine exposure. Our primary project in neurobehavioral toxicology focuses on the cognitive deficits caused by the marine toxins. The basic and applied aims of our research complement each other nicely. The findings concerning neural mechanisms underlying cognitive function help direct the behavioral toxicology and therapeutic development studies, while the applied studies provide important functional information concerning the importance of the basic mechanisms under investigation.

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