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Top-tier national researcher studies predator avoidance in fish to better understand PTSD

Concordia's new Banting Fellow examines how social influences interact with fear and fear recovery
July 19, 2018

Adam Crane, Concordia’s newest Banting postdoctoral fellow, is set to investigate just what exactly fish behaviour has to do with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

This September, Crane will join behavioural ecology professor Grant Brown from the Department of Biology to try to better understand how social influences interact with fear and fear recovery.

Crane’s research looks at predator avoidance among freshwater fish in environments with a high level of predation risk and compares these findings to humans with PTSD.

Understanding neophobia

Crane has been studying the behavioural and cognitive ecology of fishes and amphibians for several years.

“My mother was an elementary school teacher who loved nature and the outdoors. I’m sure that’s where my initial interest came from,” he says. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Crane lived in Missouri for several years before completing his PhD at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

During his two-year tenure at Concordia, Crane will focus on neophobia — the fear of novel stimuli or situations — in fish to explore dimensions of PTSD.

Animals facing high-risk environments, such as those with a diversity of unknown predators, are known to acquire a range of fearful behaviours including neophobia.

“In some cases, being neophobic may impair an animal’s ability to adjust to new circumstances,” explains Crane. “However, in the case of encountering new predators, neophobia should be a benefit.” 

This is where PTSD comes in.

PTSD as an adaptive response to danger

According to Crane, ecologists and psychologists are finding that many animals, including humans, show fear in similar ways. In humans, PTSD is a common outcome of being exposed to a high-risk environment, such as military combat.

“The hypervigilance induced by this state, while horribly unpleasant, is what helps you stay alive,” says Crane. It is, he explains, a correct behavioural response to being in a dangerous habitat.

It makes sense, then, that as we come to understand these dynamics, the term “disorder” is being used less and less among experts.

The best research subjects

Crane’s time as a Banting fellow will be divided between laboratory studies on cichlids at Concordia, and fieldwork and laboratory study on guppies, a species of tropical fish, in Trinidad.

“In my view, fishes are useful in this line of research because we can easily induce PTSD-like behaviour through exposure to predation risk, and without causing pain to the animal,” says Crane.

Moreover, he adds, the abundance of prey fishes allows researchers to conduct complex and controlled experiments.

Crane plans to explore the re-triggering of PTSD-like behaviour once it has waned, the mechanisms for its social transmission and the potential for recovery using behavioural therapy and drug interactions.

Scientific leaders of tomorrow

The Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship is a federal award designed to support top-tier researchers, both internationally and nationally. They are set at $70,000 per year, for two years. Crane is one of 70 postdoctoral fellows to receive the award this year.

The fellows are selected not just for the transformative potential of their research, but also for their leadership in the community. On top of his over 35 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals, Crane has been involved in mentoring and has volunteered for several scientific organizations.

“Much of my outreach volunteerism has been aimed at middle school and high school students, who will be our future leaders,” Crane says. “I learn so much from these opportunities. They help me become better as an academic and a person. I also believe that a more scientifically informed public makes for a better society.”

Addressing major threats through science and technology

New to Montreal, Crane is excited to join Brown’s vibrant and active ecology group, which comprises two Canada Research Chairs (David Walsh and Pedro Peres-Neto) and one Concordia University Research Chair (Jean-Philippe Lessard), as well as multiple internationally recognized experts and over 50 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

The project is funded through a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grant.

Ultimately, Crane hopes that his research will yield important findings on psychological behaviours, and lead to innovative ways to explore larger problems.

“We face many serious threats, including war, pandemics, biodiversity loss and extreme inequality,” he says. “I think that science and technology can be a key part in addressing some of these major threats.”

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