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Bringing Behavioral Assays to the Bench

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How do you reliably quantify behavior? This is a question being asked by scientists and engineers to marketers the world over. From scientists tracking the daily routine of animals, to advertizers understanding how we shop for goods, several industries depend on reliably measuring behavior.

In the neuroscience lab, the scientist needs a controlled environment in which to test the behavioral response of their subject to a stimulus or challenge. They need to be able to record and quantify their subject’s behavioral changes over time, accruing substantial amounts of data, and requiring the coordination of different pieces of kit. They then need to extract, analyse and make sense of these data. Simple experiments and their analysis can quickly become complicated and time consuming.

For example, in an odor discrimination task, a scientist might need to coordinate cameras with sensors and stimulators to record the behaviour of a fruit fly as it crawls towards or away from an odor. Researchers exploring vision may want to integrate a visual stimulator into a fish tank as they observe the visual responses of the zebrafish. Neuroscientists exploring addiction may want to incorporate a nose poke or lever-press paradigm into their mouse behavioral tracking set up.

Automated and integrated solutions can make the lives of scientists easier, and improve the reproducibility of the science, but they are generally too inflexible, too big or too costly to be attractive to scientists working in the behaviour field.

“I was hooked on developing this sort of technology to meet this need: low-cost, simple-to-use integrated systems to measure behaviour”

We talked to Dr Bill Budenberg CEO and Founder of Zantiks Ltd to find out how they are meeting the needs of scientists in academia and industry by developing small-footprint, affordable systems that integrate and automate behavioral measurements and analysis.

Dr. Bill Budenberg, CEO of Zantiks Ltd, in front of their AD model system. 

Bill began his scientific career with a natural sciences degree at the University of Cambridge, before a PhD at Imperial College London and Postdoctoral work in Kenya, exploring the pheromone and kairomone responses of the banana weevil. His interest and expertise in behavioral biology, combined with his interest in technology has driven him to develop solutions for scientists that are in labs all over the world.

Adam Tozer (AT): What drove you to set up Zantiks?

Bill Budenberg (BB): Well, Zantiks started as a project, and the project grew so much, and I realized there was such a need for integrated behavioral set-ups in the science community, that I had to start a company out of this project.

For a long time, I was looking after our children and was not working full time. However, one day I visited Dr Caroline Brennan’s lab at Queen Mary’s University, where they had built this equipment for doing operant behavioural testing on adult zebrafish. They showed that their equipment worked, but they were finding it a bit unreliable. So, they invited me to build a commercial system for this. 

I went home, thought about it and came back with a very simple way to do it. We tested the technology, and it worked. But it was not good enough, and so was improved.  And I soon realized I was hooked on developing this sort of technology to meet this need: low-cost, simple-to-use integrated systems to measure behavior; that are incredibly powerful and versatile; and can be adapted to the scientist’s needs.

AT: What model organisms can Zantiks measure the behaviour of? 

BB: Right now, our systems can be used for: zebrafish from embryo to adults; drosophila and drosophila larvae; daphnia, mice and rats.

AT: What’s the difference in your approach to other companies?

BB: Our systems are off-the-shelf plug-in-and-play systems to measure behaviour. Everything is fully integrated and can be fully automated, so you can control everything from one interface. Our interface is a web page, launchable from any web browser, so you can add multiple units to the set-up and operate them remotely. This reduces operator interaction with test subjects, which also helps to improve experiment reproducibility and scalability.

If you team our systems up with automated microplate fillers you have an automated phenotypic screening system, that is affordable for academics.

AT: What are the challenges to measuring behaviour for scientists? 

BB: Reproducibility of results and unconscious biasing of data is a challenge for behavioral scientists. By standardizing the test environment our units are helping to overcome the challenge of reproducibility. Experiments performed on our systems in one lab are directly comparable with those performed on the same kit in another lab across the world.

The other challenge is accessibility. We want to open-up the field for people that want to perform behavioral experiments, by making our systems easy to use and affordable. You can plug our systems in at the bench and perform experiments. 

There are lot of scientists doing brilliant molecular biology work that need a reliable, reproducible system to test the effect of their genetic manipulations on the behaviour of their model organism. Our systems facilitate this.

“I’m almost horrified by how much capability we can deliver - and want to deliver - as we develop our systems”
AT: What’s in the pipeline for Zantiks and how do you hope to drive forward behavioral research?

BB: We have lots of ideas and plans for the future, I’m almost horrified by how much capability we can deliver - and want to deliver - as we develop our systems.

In particular we hope to make experiments with odor easy to carry out. We as humans are very ‘visual’ animals, but rodents and insects are very olfactory animals, and we plan to include hardware and software for controlled odor delivery within our equipment. This will be used in laboratories, but will also provide solutions for field entomologists, harking back to my roots!

I’m very excited by our automation of learning and memory assays for drosophila. These will be incorporated into our systems soon.

With a solid foundation and exciting plans for the future, Bill and Zantiks are making it easier for scientists to test, record and analyze behavior, increasing accessibility to the discipline whilst simultaneously improving reproducibility.