Ithaca, N.Y. — When Professor Ian Woods is not playing organ at a church downtown, he is working in his lab at Ithaca College, studying zebrafish and their relationship to human anxiety.

Professor Woods and some zebrafish. (Courtesy Ithaca College)

Woods says that anxiety disorders affect one in every five people, with treatment options that are often, unfortunately, “one-size-fits-all.”

“We treat it with these drugs that interact with serotonin signaling in the brain,” said Woods. “The problem with messing with serotonin is that serotonin has so many other functions than just the functions in anxiety and depression.”

“If you mess with serotonin, you get a lot of side effects because it has so many other activities,” said Woods.

But Woods hopes that his research with zebrafish will contribute to anxiety treatment becoming more personalized.

Woods, along with his team of student researchers, studies how fish with tweaked genes respond to different stimuli compared to fish with unmodified genes.

“By observing the ensuing behavioral changes in the fish, we know how that replaced gene changed the message in the brain,” Woods said in a statement.

“Genes typically don’t cause the anxiety,” Woods said. “But they can make organisms more susceptible to environmental triggers that might elicit what we’d call an anxious behavior.”

Zebrafish, a member of the minnow family, were chosen as the subject of the study due to their brains’ similarities to the human brain.

Rows of zebrafish located within the Center for Natural Sciences at Ithaca College. (Kyle Friend)

“We share a very large percentage of genes in common with the fish, so if you can figure out what’s happening within the fish brain in terms of anxiety, you can use that knowledge and translate it to humans,” said Woods.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Anxiety disorders cost the U.S. approximately $42 billion per year.

(According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, only one-third of people suffering with anxiety receive treatment.)

Woods has been working with fish since 2000, when he was pursuing medical school. To get into medical school, Woods said, he needed to have research lab experience.

“I found a lab to work in, and it just so happened that this lab worked in fish, and it turned out that I like that a lot better,” he said. “It seemed a more attractive option than medical school.”

Woods found a passion for studying fish, and if all goes according to plan, he said, he’ll be doing it until the day he retires.

“That’s the great thing about biology — it’s a blessing and a curse — there’s never an end.”

Kyle Friend

A senior at Cornell University, Kyle covers the affordable housing crisis for the Ithaca Voice. Reach him through e-mail: kyleafriend@gmail.com.