Synaptophysin is a protein involved in neurotransmitter exocytosis and is a neuroendocrine marker. We studied synaptophysin immunohistochemical expression in 35 human liver specimens (normal and different pathological conditions), in rat models of galactosamine hepatitis and carbon tetrachloride-induced cirrhosis, and in freshly isolated rat stellate cells. Synaptophysin reactivity was present in perisinusoidal stellate cells in both human and rat normal liver biopsies. The number of synaptophysin-reactive perisinusoidal cells increased in pathological conditions. Double staining for alpha-smooth muscle actin and synaptophysin, detected by confocal laser scanning microscopy, unequivocally demonstrated colocalization of both markers in lobular stellate cells. In addition, freshly isolated rat stellate cells expressed synaptophysin mRNA (detected by polymerase chain reaction) and protein. Finally, electron microscopy showed the presence of small electron translucent vesicles, comparable to the synaptophysin-reactive synaptic vesicles in neurons, in stellate cell projections. We conclude that synaptophysin is a novel marker for quiescent as well as activated hepatic stellate cells. Together with the stellate cell's expression of neural cell adhesion molecule, glial fibrillary acidic protein, and nestin, this finding raises questions about its embryonic origin and its differentiation. In addition, the presence of synaptic vesicles in stellate cell processes suggests a hitherto unknown mechanism of interaction with neighboring cells.