Get access

Different Populations of Melanocytes Are Present in Hair Follicles and Epidermis


Address reprint requests to Dr. Desmond J. Tobin, Room H26, Department of Biomecial Sciences, University of Bradford, Bradford, West Yorkshire BD7 1DP, England.


Melanocytes in human skin reside both in the epidermis and in the matrix and outer root sheath of anagen hair follicles. Comparative study of melanocytes in these different locations has been difficult as hair follicle melanocytes could not be cultured. In this study we used a recently described method of growing hair follicle melanocytes to characterize and compare hair follicle and epidermal melanocytes in the scalp of the same individual. Three morphologically and antigenically distinct types of melanocytes were observed in primary culture. These included (1) moderately pigmented and polydendritic melanocytes derived from epidermis; (2) small, bipolar, amelanotic melanocytes; and (3) large, intensely pigmented melanocytes; the latter two were derived from hair follicles. The three sub-populations of cells all reacted with melanocyte-specific monoclonal antibody. Epidermal and amelanotic hair follicle melanocytes proliferated well in culture, whereas the intensely pigmented hair follicle melanocytes did not. Amelanotic hair follicle melanocytes differed from epidermal melanocytes in being less differentiated, and they expressed less mature melanosome antigens. In addition, hair follicle melanocytes expressed some antigens associated with alopecia areata, but not antigens associated with vitiligo, whereas the reverse was true for epidermal melanocytes. Thus, antigenically different populations of melanocytes are present in epidermis and hair follicle. This could account for the preferential destruction of hair follicle melanocytes in alopecia areata and of epidermal melanocytes in vitiligo.