The clinical manifestations of atopie dermatitis comprise a complex mixture of pharmacological, physiological and immunological responses. Circumstantial evidence suggests that atopic disease may arise consequent upon the migration of bone marrow-derived cells into the target tissue of skin or respiratory mucosa. Mediator release from such cells has been shown to be abnormal in atopic dermatitis, and itch, the hallmark of the disease, may be the result of chronic inflammatory mediator release into the skin. Abnormal release of mediators has been shown to correlate with inadequate nucleotide control of cell function. In particular, elevated cyclic AMP-specific PDE activity causing cyelic AMP hyporesponsiveness has been found in peripheral blood mononuclear leucocytes in atopic dermatitis. Investigation of this pathway has led to the discovery of additional abnormalities of other secondary messenger systems, including abnor-malities of protein kinase C activity and of inositol activation. The biochemical abnormalities may be a consequence of down-regulation of the second messenger systems because of chronic exposure to low levels of inflammatory mediators, but may themselves subsequently permit further mediator release. They may provide a biochemical mechanism for many of the immunological abnormalities seen in atopic dermatitis. In particular, they offer a biochemical explanation for the paradox of increased type 1-mediated immunity and diminished cell-mediated immunity commonly observed in this complex disease.