Collective Emotional Contagion in Zebrafish

Daniel Alberto Burbano Lombana, Simone Macrì, Maurizio Porfiri

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Seeking to match our emotional state with one of those around us is known as emotional contagion-a fundamental biological process that underlies social behavior across several species and taxa. While emotional contagion has been traditionally considered to be a prerogative of mammals and birds, recent findings are demonstrating otherwise. Here, we investigate emotional contagion in groups of zebrafish, a freshwater model species which is gaining momentum in preclinical studies. Zebrafish have high genetic homology to humans, and they exhibit a complex behavioral repertoire amenable to study social behavior. To investigate whether individual emotional states can be transmitted to group members, we pharmacologically modulated anxiety-related behaviors of a single fish through Citalopram administration and we assessed whether the altered emotional state spread to a group of four untreated conspecifics. By capitalizing upon our in-house developed tracking algorithm, we successfully preserved the identity of all the subjects and thoroughly described their individual and social behavioral phenotypes. In accordance with our predictions, we observed that Citalopram administration consistently reduced behavioral anxiety of the treated individual, in the form of reduced geotaxis, and that such a behavioral pattern readily generalized to the untreated subjects. A transfer entropy analysis of causal interactions within the group revealed that emotional contagion was directional, whereby the treated individual influenced untreated subjects, but not vice-versa. This study offers additional evidence that emotional contagion is biologically preserved in simpler living organisms amenable to preclinical investigations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number730372
JournalFrontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
StatePublished - Sep 9 2021


  • Citalopram
  • behavior
  • empathy
  • geotaxis
  • transfer entropy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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