Axonal regeneration is important for functional recovery following nerve damage. Centella asiatica Urban herb, also known as Hydrocotyle asiatica L., has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries as a nerve tonic. Here, we show that Centella asiatica ethanolic extract (100 microg mL-1) elicits a marked increase in neurite outgrowth in human SH-SY5Y cells in the presence of nerve growth factor (NGF). However, a water extract of Centella was ineffective at 100 microg mL-1. Sub-fractions of Centella ethanolic extract, obtained through silica-gel chromatography, were tested (100 microg mL-1) for neurite elongation in the presence of NGF. Greatest activity was found with a non-polar fraction (GKF4). Relatively polar fractions (GKF10 to GKF13) also showed activity, albeit less than GKF4. Thus, Centella contains more than one active component. Asiatic acid (AA), a triterpenoid compound found in Centella ethanolic extract and GKF4, showed marked activity at 1 microM (microg mL-1). AA was not present in GKF10 to GKF13, further indicating that other active components must be present. Neurite elongation by AA was completely blocked by the extracellular-signal-regulated kinase (ERK) pathway inhibitor PD 098059 (10 microM). Male Sprague-Dawley rats given Centella ethanolic extract in their drinking water (300-330 mg kg-1 daily) demonstrated more rapid functional recovery and increased axonal regeneration (larger calibre axons and greater numbers of myelinated axons) compared with controls, indicating that the axons grew at a faster rate. Taken together, our findings indicate that components in Centella ethanolic extract may be useful for accelerating repair of damaged neurons.