The neurotrophins (NTs) are a group of growth factors involved in the development of the nervous system and presumed to play a role in neural crest-derived tumours. The expression of three NTs (NGF, BDNF, and NT-3) and their receptors (NTRs; i.e. low-affinity pan-NT receptor p75, Trk-B, and Trk-C) was studied in frozen sections of benign and malignant cutaneous pigment cell lesions, using immunohistochemistry. In order to understand the possible role of these growth factors and their receptors in the progression of primary cutaneous malignant melanomas (PCMMs), their distribution in the radial (RGP) and vertical (VGP) growth phases was particularly studied. While most of the common acquired naevi were unreactive, Spitz and blue naevi showed scattered immunoreactive cells, especially for the p75 NTR. Dysplastic naevi, but not common naevi, expressed NT-3 in their junctional component. PCMM and melanoma metastases often showed a diffuse pattern of immunostaining. NT-3 was significantly more frequently expressed in the RGP of PCMMs than in the junctional component of benign naevi, whereas more extensive immunoreactivity for NGF was found in the VGP of PCMMs, compared with the RGP; metastases more frequently expressed NGF, BDNF, and Trk-B than PCMMs. Interestingly, neurotropic melanoma expressed all NTs/NTRs except Trk-B. These immuunohistochemical data confirm suggestions from previous in vitro studies that autocrine loops of certain NTs and their respective receptors may be involved in melanoma progression; in addition, NT-3 may be involved in the junctional growth of dysplastic naevi. The precise role of these growth factors in melanoma, however, will await further functional studies. Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.