Normalization of large-scale behavioural data collected from zebrafish

Abstract

Many contemporary neuroscience experiments utilize high-throughput approaches to simultaneously collect behavioural data from many animals. The resulting data are often complex in structure and are subjected to systematic biases, which require new approaches for analysis and normalization. This study addressed the normalization need by establishing an approach based on linear-regression modeling. The model was established using a dataset of visual motor response (VMR) obtained from several strains of wild-type (WT) zebrafish collected at multiple stages of development. The VMR is a locomotor response triggered by drastic light change, and is commonly measured repeatedly from multiple larvae arrayed in 96-well plates. This assay is subjected to several systematic variations. For example, the light emitted by the machine varies slightly from well to well. In addition to the light-intensity variation, biological replication also created batch-batch variation. These systematic variations may result in differences in the VMR and must be normalized. Our normalization approach explicitly modeled the effect of these systematic variations on VMR. It also normalized the activity profiles of different conditions to a common baseline. Our approach is versatile, as it can incorporate different normalization needs as separate factors. The versatility was demonstrated by an integrated normalization of three factors: light-intensity variation, batch-batch variation and baseline. After normalization, new biological insights were revealed from the data. For example, we found larvae of TL strain at 6 days post-fertilization (dpf) responded to light onset much stronger than the 9-dpf larvae, whereas previous analysis without normalization shows that their responses were relatively comparable. By removing systematic variations, our model-based normalization can facilitate downstream statistical comparisons and aid detecting true biological differences in high-throughput studies of neurobehaviour.