Hypothalamic neurons regulate fundamental body functions including sleep, blood pressure, temperature, hunger and metabolism, thirst and satiety, stress, and social behavior. This is achieved by means of the secretion of various hypothalamic neuropeptides and neurotransmitters that affect endocrine, metabolic, and behavioral activities. Developmental impairments of hypothalamic neuronal circuits are associated with neurological disorders that disrupt both physiological and psychological homeostasis. Hypothalamic cell specification and morphogenesis can be uniquely studied in zebrafish, a vertebrate organism readily amenable to genetic manipulations. As embryos are optically transparent and develop externally, they provide a powerful tool for in vivo analyses of neurons and their circuits. Here, we discuss the current knowledge regarding the neuroanatomy of the zebrafish hypothalamus and recent studies identifying critical determinants of hypothalamic differentiation. Taken together, these reports demonstrate that the molecular pathways underlying development of the hypothalamus are largely conserved between zebrafish and mammals. We conclude that the zebrafish has proved itself a valuable vertebrate model for understanding the patterning, specification, morphogenesis, and subsequent function of the hypothalamus.
© 2011 New York Academy of Sciences.