Receptor biology of the melanocortins, a family of neuroimmunomodulatory peptides

Neuroimmunomodulation. Sep-Oct 1996;3(5):259-84. doi: 10.1159/000097281.


Melanocortins, melanocyte-stimulating hormones (MSH) and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) are homologous natural peptides derived from pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC). Recent breakthroughs in melanocortin receptor (MCR) biology are relevant to neuroimmunomodulation because melanocortins are known to modulate fever, inflammation and immunity, by acting both on peripheral targets and within the brain. During fever, endogenous melanocortins exert antipyretic effects by acting on MCR located within the brain, suggesting a protective counterregulatory role of the central melanocortin system. MCR are also found in melanocytic cells and adrenal cortical cells, the classical targets for alpha-MSH and ACTH, respectively, in myelogenous and lymphoid tissues, and in various endocrine and exocrine glands, adipocytes, and in autonomic ganglia. In the CNS, MCR are prominently distributed in close proximity to the terminal fields of melanocortinergic neurons that innervate neuroendocrine and autonomic motor nuclei as well as other subcortical brain regions important in neuroendocrine and autonomic regulation, sensory processing and various aspects of behavior. Furthermore, the presence of MCR in circumventricular organs of the brain provides direct access of systemic melanocortin hormones to central MCR. Together, these attributes provide an anatomical basis for bidirectional MCR-mediated communication between brain and periphery. A group of five G-protein-associated MCR subtypes, each of which is positively coupled to adenylate cyclase, has been identified. Among these, the adrenal ACTH receptor (MC2-R) is selectively activated by ACTH. In contrast, the other MCR subtypes (MC1-R, MC3-R, MC4-R, MC5-R) recognize a common group of ligands that includes various forms of MSH as well as ACTH; nevertheless they do exhibit important differences in ligand selectivity. MCR concentrations and MCR mRNA levels are influenced by availability of cognate ligands, by drugs, and by pathological stimuli. Two types of endogenous MCR antagonist proteins have been discovered: agouti protein and the corticostatins. Agouti protein dramatically alters coat color in mammals by antagonizing melanocytic MC1-R. Moreover, spontaneous dominant mutations of the agouti gene in several strains of mice lead to its ubiquitous overexpression and produces not only yellow coat color, but also obesity and insulin resistance, perhaps as a result of its antagonism of other MCR subtypes. The recent emergence of synthetic MCR antagonists, and the feasibility of molecular approaches for targeted inactivation of individual MCR subtypes, should facilitate elucidation of the roles and mechanisms of neuroimmunomodulation by endogenous melanocortins, and the determination of whether selective pharmacological targeting of MCR may ultimately have therapeutic utility.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adjuvants, Immunologic / pharmacology*
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Melanocyte-Stimulating Hormones / pharmacology
  • Mice
  • Peptides / pharmacology*
  • Receptor, Melanocortin, Type 3*
  • Receptors, Corticotropin / drug effects
  • Receptors, Corticotropin / physiology*
  • Receptors, Melanocortin


  • Adjuvants, Immunologic
  • Mc3r protein, mouse
  • Peptides
  • Receptor, Melanocortin, Type 3
  • Receptors, Corticotropin
  • Receptors, Melanocortin
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Melanocyte-Stimulating Hormones