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Intelligent Monitoring of Health in a Model Organism: Detection and Alleviation of Stress and Pain in Zebrafish

School of Natural and Environmental Sciences

Dr M Leach , Dr J Thomson , Prof J Spencer Friday, January 22, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
Newcastle United Kingdom Bioinformatics Zoology

About the Project

Assessing animal welfare can be challenging since we cannot directly communicate with animals but even more so when it comes to fishes since they do not vocalise nor show discernible changes in facial expression. This study addresses a key question of today’s use of animals in research: how to refine experiments using zebrafish as a model under the 'three Rs' ethical principles to improve welfare? This project aims to improve laboratory fish welfare by developing a novel artificial intelligent monitoring tool that can automatically measure changes in behaviour that are indicative of pain or stress. Working in collaboration with Techniplast, a major provider of zebrafish housing, the student will validate the software tool and associated hardware when zebrafish are subject to laboratory procedures. To refine experiments, drugs with pain-relieving properties will be tested to determine their effectiveness. The student will also explore the pharmacokinetics of each drug and their impact upon brain gene expression and any possible toxic effects. To develop valid analgesic protocols for use on adult zebrafish in the laboratory, more information is needed in terms of what dose of drugs are effective, when and how to administer them and for how long they act to understand when to re-administer. Therefore, this proposed project fills a much-needed gap in our current understanding and would be an important step in refining experiments using zebrafish on a global scale.

AIM: This project seeks to apply an AI monitoring tool to gauge welfare in one of the main fish models, the zebrafish and produce a robust system in partnership with industry. 


1. Develop the utility of the tool in assessing welfare changes in an important laboratory model, the zebrafish, when fish are exposed to acute husbandry procedures, environmental change, and potentially painful procedures compared with normal behaviour.

2. Correlate physiological function and stress indicators with behavioural responses to understand if behaviour is indicative of reduced welfare. Alongside the behavioural changes we will measure primary (plasma cortisol, changes in brain gene expression) and secondary stress indicators (lactate, glucose).

3. To inform pain management strategies, we will test a range of drugs with analgesic properties to determine the most effective drug and dose as well as using pharmacokinetics to determine the persistence of these drugs in the zebrafish tissues

4. Testing and development of the AI tool in real-life situations in laboratories in Newcastle, Liverpool and Gothenburg in collaboration with our industry partner.

Informal enquiries may be made to


Applications should be made by emailing with a CV and a covering letter, including whatever additional information you feel is pertinent to your application; you may wish to indicate, for example, why you are particularly interested in the selected project/s and at the selected University. Applications not meeting these criteria will be rejected. We will also require electronic copies of your degree certificates and transcripts.

In addition to the CV and covering letter, please email a completed copy of the Application Details Form (Word document) to , noting the additional details that are required for your application which are listed in this form. A blank copy of this form can be found at:

Funding Notes

CASE studentships are funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) for 4 years. Funding will cover tuition fees at the UK rate only, a Research Training and Support Grant (RTSG) and stipend. We aim to support the most outstanding applicants from outside the UK and are able to offer a limited number of bursaries that will enable full studentships to be awarded to international applicants. These full studentships will only be awarded to exceptional quality candidates, due to the competitive nature of this scheme.

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