Communication between the nervous system and epidermal melanocytes has been suspected on the basis of their common embryologic origin and apparent parallel involvement in several disease processes, but never proven. In this study, confocal microscopic analysis of human skin sections stained with antibodies specific for melanocytes and nerve fibers showed intraepidermal nerve endings in contact with melanocytes. This intimate contact was confirmed by electron microscopy, which further demonstrated thickening of apposing plasma membranes between melanocytes and nerve fibers, similar to synaptic contacts seen in nervous tissue. Since many intraepidermal nerve fibers are afferent nerves that act in a "neurosecretory" fashion through their terminals, cultured human melanocytes were stimulated with calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), substance P, or vasoactive intestinal peptide, neuropeptides known to be present in cutaneous nerves, to examine their possible functions in the epidermal melanin unit. CGRP increased DNA synthesis rate of melanocytes in a concentration- and time-dependent manner. Cell yields after 5 d were increased 25% compared with controls maintained in an otherwise optimized medium. Furthermore, stimulation by CGRP induced rapid and dose-dependent accumulation of intracellular cAMP, suggesting that the mitogenic effect is mediated by the cAMP pathway. These studies confirm and expand a single earlier report in an animal model of physical contact between melanocytes and cutaneous nerves and for the first time strongly suggest that the nervous system may exert a tonic effect on melanocytes in normal or diseased human skin.

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