JOURNAL ARTICLE
RESEARCH SUPPORT, NON-U.S. GOV'T
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Human hair follicles display a functional equivalent of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and synthesize cortisol.

The skin and its major appendages are prominent target organs and potent sources of key players along the classical hypothalamic-pituitary axis, such as corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and alpha melanocyte stimulating hormone (alpha-MSH), and even express key steroidogenic enzymes. Therefore, it may have established local stress response systems that resemble the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. However, functional evidence that this is indeed the case in normal human skin in situ has still been missing. We show that microdissected, organ-cultured human scalp hair follicles respond to CRH stimulation by up-regulating proopiomelanocortin (POMC) transcription and immunoreactivity (IR) for ACTH and alpha-MSH, which must have been processed from POMC. CRH, alpha-MSH, and ACTH also modulate expression of their cognate receptors (CRH-R1, MC1-R, MC2-R). In addition, the strongest stimulus for adrenal cortisol production, ACTH, also up-regulates cortisol-IR in the hair follicles. Isolated human hair follicles secrete substantial levels of cortisol into the culture medium, and this activity is further up-regulated by CRH. CRH also modulates important functional hair growth parameters in vitro (hair shaft elongation, catagen induction, hair keratinocyte proliferation, melanin production). Finally, human hair follicles display HPA axis-like regulatory feedback systems, since the glucocorticoid receptor agonist hydrocortisone down-regulates follicular CRH expression. Thus, even in the absence of endocrine, neural, or vascular systemic connections, normal human scalp hair follicles directly respond to CRH stimulation in a strikingly similar manner to what is seen in the classical HPA axis, including synthesis and secretion of cortisol and activation of prototypic neuroendocrine feedback loops.

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