Mast cells are the principal effector cells in IgE-dependent hypersensitivity reactions. Despite reports that rodent mast cells proliferate in the presence of nerve growth factor (NGF), human mast cells reportedly do not respond to this factor. To determine if human mast cells express the NGF receptors, TrkA tyrosine receptor and the low affinity NGF receptor (LNGFR), we first analyzed the mRNA expression by RT-PCR of TrkA and LNGFR in a human mast cell line (HMC-1) and in human mast cells cultured in the presence of stem cell factor. Both HMC-1 and cultured human mast cells were found to express TrkA but not LNGFR. TrkA protein was demonstrated by Western blot analysis of HMC-1 lysates. Using flow cytometric analysis and mast cell tryptase as a mast cell marker, both HMC-1 cells and cultured human mast cells were shown to coexpress tryptase and TrkA. Treatment of mast cells with NGF resulted in phosphorylation of TrkA on tyrosine residues as detected by immunoblotting with an antiphosphotyrosine antibody. Furthermore, NGF induced the immediate early gene c-fos in HMC-1 cells. HMC-1 cells and cultured human mast cells were also found to express NGF mRNA, and conditioned medium from HMC-1 cells stimulated neurite outgrowth from chicken embryonic sensory ganglia in culture. This effect was blocked by anti-NGF. Thus, mast cells express functional TrkA and synthesize NGF, suggesting a mechanism by which NGF may act as an autocrine factor for human mast cells, and by which mast cells and nerves may interact.