They have found that serotonin sends signals to stem cells found in the spinal cord to boost the growth of new motor neurons - nerve cells that are vital for controlling muscle activity and movement.
The findings could help scientists to grow motor neurons in the laboratory that can be used in studies aimed at better understanding neurodegenerative conditions.
Damage to motor neurons in people - either as a result of neurodegeneration or spinal cord injury - is irreversible.
Remarkably, however, zebrafish can heal themselves from spinal cord injury by growing new motor neurons from stem cells present in the spinal cord.
Researchers hope that better understanding the repair mechanisms in zebrafish could eventually lead to new therapies for people with neurodegenerative conditions.
Understanding how zebrafish are able to repair damaged nerves could one day help us to trigger similar mechanisms in human stem cells. Our hope is that this may eventually lead to new treatments for conditions such as motor neuron disease, for which there is no cure.
Dr Thomas Becker, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Neuroregeneration and the Euan MacDonald Centre for Motor Neurone Disease Research
Motor neurone disease is an untreatable condition caused by the progressive loss of motor neurons that control movement, speech and breathing.
The study is published in the journal Cell Reports. It was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Following an Advanced Life Sciences Research Technology (ALERT) award from the BBSRC (with contributions from the Edinburgh Medical School and Biogen Idec), University of Edinburgh researchers have established a platform for high-throughput drug and chemical in vivo screening of zebrafish for the UK community and its partners.
This new screening facility, which will be launched officially on the 9th of December, will help fully exploit the potential of zebrafish as a preeminent system for drug discovery and genetic-based-screening in a vertebrate. Industrial partners interested in supporting or attending the launch and/or using the facility are encouraged to get in touch.
For further information and to highlight your interest please contact the office of Prof Catherina G. Becker, Professor of Neural Development and Regeneration, Director, Centre for Neuroregeneration, on 0131 242 7976.
Source: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Neuroregeneration