Scientists are using tropical fish to investigate how the spinal cord can be coaxed to repair itself after injury.
A European research team, led by the University of Edinburgh, has received £1.1 million to investigate how zebrafish are able to repair and replace damaged nerve cells.
Researchers will explore how these mechanisms can be triggered in other animals and human cells.
They hope their findings will reveal new therapies that could be tested in patients with neurodegenerative conditions, such as motor neuron disease and multiple sclerosis. Such treatments could also help people with certain types of paralysis.
The spinal cord carries vital connections between the brain and muscles called motor neurons, which are crucial for controlling movement of the body. Damage to these fragile nerve cells – either by injury or disease – is permanent and results in irreversible paralysis.
Zebrafish have the remarkable ability to repair injured connections and replace damaged motor neurons, enabling them to regain full movement within four weeks after injury.
They are also able to repair the specialised sheath that surrounds nerve cells – called myelin – which helps speed up the transmission of nerve impulses that control movement.
Researchers are developing specialised microscope techniques to monitor the mechanisms of nerve cell repair in action.
They hope to identify the molecular signals that instruct stem cells in the zebrafish’s spinal cord to produce new motor neurons and stimulate repair of the myelin sheath.
These factors will then be examined in further animal studies and laboratory tests on human cells.
At the end of the three-year study, the researchers hope to identify potential therapies that can be taken forward into clinical trials involving patients with neurodegenerative diseases.
Lead researcher Professor Catherina Becker said: “This exciting project brings together leading experts from across Europe to explore the intrinsic capacity of the spinal cord to repair itself. We hope this will eventually lead to urgently needed therapies for people who have damage to their spinal cord, either from disease or injury.”