BLACKSBURG, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Tech researchers believe they have identified a molecule that will help them better understand mental health disorders related to stress and anxiety. How did they do it? Studying zebrafish.

Zebrafish are known for having a similar genetic makeup to humans, and while studying their brain development, researchers came across a molecule that is critical to how the brain responds to stress.

Researchers found that deficiencies in the molecule DSCAML1, short for DS cell adhesion molecule like 1, can disrupt brain development and increase baseline levels of cortisol, which makes the primary stress hormone less able to do its job in times of stress.

During the study, zebrafish with a DSCAML1 deficiency were found to have unbalanced reactions when introduced to stress. In fact, their cortisol levels were two to three times higher than in the control group.

Albert Pan, an associate professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, believes this discovery will lead to new inquiries in the world of mental health and may also lead to new therapies for stress-related disorders such as depression and anxiety.