Neuroendocrinology of mast cells: Challenges and controversies

Exp Dermatol. 2017 Sep;26(9):751-759. doi: 10.1111/exd.13288. Epub 2017 Apr 2.


Mast cells (MC) are hemotopoietically derived tissue immune cells that are ubiquitous in the body, including neuroendocrine organs such as the hypothalamus, pineal, pituitary, ovaries, pancreas and uterus where their action is not well understood. Mast cells have historically been associated with allergies because of their rich content of histamine and tryptase, but more recently with regulation of immunity and inflammation due to their synthesis and release of numerous cytokines and chemokines. Mast cells are located perivascularly and express numerous receptors for diverse ligands such as allergens, pathogens, neurotransmitters, neuropeptides and hormones including acetylcholine, calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), corticosteroids, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), β-endorphin, epinephrine, 17β-oestradiol, gonadotrophins, hemokinin-A (HKA), leptin, melatonin, neurotensin (NT), parathyroid hormone (PTH), substance P (SP) and vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP). Moreover, MC can synthesize and release most of their neurohormonal triggers, including adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH), CRH, endorphins, HKA, leptin, melatonin, NT, SP and VIP. Animal experiments have shown that diencephalic MC increase in number during courting in doves, while stimulation of brain and nasal MC leads to activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Recent evidence indicates that MC reactivity exhibits diurnal variations, and it is interesting that melatonin appears to regulate MC secretion. However, the way MC change their phenotype or secrete specific molecules selectively at different pathophysiological settings still remains unknown. Mast cells developed over 500 million years ago and may have served as the original prototype neuroimmunoendocrine cell and then evolved into a master regulator of such interactions, especially as most of the known diseases involve neuroinflammation that worsens with stress.

Keywords: allergies; corticotropin-releasing hormone; hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis; melatonin; neuropeptides; neurotransmitters; stress; substance P.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Endocrine System / physiology*
  • Hormones / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Mast Cells / physiology*
  • Skin Diseases / immunology*


  • Hormones