Cutaneous melanocytic neoplasms are known to acquire variable characteristics of neural crest differentiation. Melanocytic nevus cells in the dermis and desmoplastic melanomas often display characteristics of nerve sheath differentiation. The extent and nature of neuronal differentiation characteristics displayed by primary and metastatic melanoma cells are not well understood. Here, we describe induction of a juvenile isoform of microtubule-associated protein 2 (MAP-2c) in cultured metastatic melanoma cells by the differentiation inducer hexamethylene bisacetamide. Up-regulation of this MAP-2 isoform, a marker for immature neurons, is accompanied by extended dendritic morphology and down-regulation of tyrosinase-related protein 1 (TYRP1/gp75), a melanocyte differentiation marker. In a panel of cell lines that represent melanoma tumor progression, MAP-2c mRNA and the corresponding approximately 70-kd protein could be detected predominantly in primary melanomas. Immunohistochemical analysis of 61 benign and malignant melanocytic lesions showed abundant expression of MAP-2 protein in melanocytic nevi and in the in situ and invasive components of primary melanoma, but only focal heterogeneous expression in a few metastatic melanomas. In contrast, MAP-2-positive dermal nevus cells and the invasive cells of primary melanomas were TYRP1-negative. This reciprocal staining pattern in vivo is similar to the in vitro observation that induction of the neuronal marker MAP-2 in metastatic melanoma cells is accompanied by selective extinction of the melanocytic marker TYRP1. Our data show that neoplastic melanocytes, particularly at early stages, retain the plasticity to express the neuron-specific marker MAP-2. These observations are consistent with the premise that both benign and malignant melanocytes in the dermis can express markers of neuronal differentiation.