Indian Journal of Dermatology
  Publication of IADVL, WB
  Official organ of AADV
Indexed with Science Citation Index (E) , Web of Science and PubMed
Users online: 1160  
Home About  Editorial Board  Current Issue Archives Online Early Coming Soon Guidelines Subscriptions  e-Alerts    Login  
    Small font sizeDefault font sizeIncrease font size Print this page Email this page

Table of Contents 
Year : 2013  |  Volume : 58  |  Issue : 6  |  Page : 421-428
Role of histamine as a toxic mediator in the pathogenesis of vitiligo

1 Department of Dermatology, S S K M Hospital and Institute of Post-Graduate Medical Education and Research, Kolkata, India
2 Department of Pharmacology, School of Tropical Medicine, Kolkata, India

Date of Web Publication17-Oct-2013

Correspondence Address:
Salil Kumar Panja
117, Vivekananda Road, Kolkata - 700 006
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0019-5154.119947

Rights and Permissions


Background: The precise cause of vitiligo is still unclear. Multiple theories have been proposed, including genetic, autoimmune, neural, and biochemical mechanisms. An immune mediated pathogenesis is indeed the most popular theory. The autoimmune hypothesis considers the role of toxic mediator that might cause an injury to the melanocytes with the release of an antigenic substance and subsequent autoimmunization. Aims: This study performed over a period of 10 years (February 1975 to June 1985) aims at exploring the role that histamine might play in the pathogenesis of vitiligo. Materials and Methods: Fifty patients with a particular type of vitiligo characterized by faint white patches occurring with significant pruritus and a history of atopy were selected and blood histamine levels were determined by Bio-Assay method. Results: Blood histamine values of patients with vitiligo of short duration and with pruritus were significantly increased in comparison with values of matched controls. Conclusion: Histamine appears to play a significant role in the pathogenesis of a particular type of vitiligo characterized by faint hypopigmented patches with significant itching.

Keywords: Autoimmunity, atopy, histamine, intolerance to melanizing agents, vitiligo

How to cite this article:
Panja SK, Bhattacharya B, Lahiri SC. Role of histamine as a toxic mediator in the pathogenesis of vitiligo. Indian J Dermatol 2013;58:421-8

How to cite this URL:
Panja SK, Bhattacharya B, Lahiri SC. Role of histamine as a toxic mediator in the pathogenesis of vitiligo. Indian J Dermatol [serial online] 2013 [cited 2023 Sep 21];58:421-8. Available from:

What was known?
1. An autoimmune mechanism has been implicated in the pathogenesis of vitiligo in most cases.
2. Histamine mediates some actions through various interleukin pathways and elevated levels of serum soluble IL.2 receptor, IL. 6, and IL. 8 has been reported in vitiligo patients.

   Introduction Top

Vitiligo is an acquired, idiopathic disorder of the skin characterized clinically by circumscribed depigmented macules and histologically by the absence of identifiable melanocytes. Functional melanocytes disappear from the involved skin by a mechanism(s) that has not been identified.[1] The main mechanism of melanocyte destruction in vitiligo is thought to be due to an autoimmune lymphocytic attack on melanocytes.[2] There are several hypotheses concerning the pathogenesis of vitiligo. Of the many hypotheses suggested by various investigators from time to time the following three have received general acceptance: (1) Autoimmune hypothesis: Suggests that depigmentation is due to formation of autoantibodies directed against body's own melanin or some other part of melanocyte. This may arise as a primary aberration of the immune surveillance, or the primary event could be an injury to the melanocyte with release of antigenic substance(s) and subsequent autoimmunization. Autoimmune etiology is favored by its association with known autoimmune diseases such as Addison's disease, Hashimoto's thyrioditis, pernicious anemia,[3] and the fact that patients with vitiligo have increased organ-specific autoantibodies including antibodies to adrenal cytoplasm, thyroglobulin, gastric parietal cells, and pancreatic islet cells. Antibodies directed against melanocyte cell surface antigens are often demonstrated in the sera of vitiligo patients.[4] Also antibodies against tyrosinase have been reported in patients of localized as well as generalized vitiligo.[5] (2) Self-destruction hypothesis: Suggests that in the process of synthesis of melanin within the melanocytes some toxic metabolic intermediates form. The normal melanocytes have inherent mechanisms by which these metabolites are successfully eliminated. Defects in, or absence of, of this inherent mechanism results in accumulation of toxic melanin precursors causing melanocyte dysfunction or death.[6] (3) Neuro-chemical hypothesis: suggests that release of a neuro-humoral or chemical factor destroys the melanocyte or inhibits melanin formation giving rise to depigmentation. Nature of this toxic mediator remains speculative. For a long time neurotransmitters from peripheral nerve-endings (acetylcholine and catecholamines) have been incriminated. A reduced acetylcholinesterase activity in vitiliginous skin has been reported.[7] Also dysfunction of sympathetic nerves in vitiliginous skin has been reported showing abnormalities in catecholamines and related enzymes (catechol-o-methyl transferase and monoamine oxidase).[8],[9] The neural hypothesis is based in the first place on the presence of segmental vitiligo. Segmental vitiligo is often described as following a dermatomal pattern and unilateral. But actually it does not follow a specific cutaneous sensory nerve distribution pattern.[10]

It has now been realized that all the various clinical types of vitiligo cannot be explained by a single hypothesis. Koga has shown that there are two distinct types of vitiligo, each having a different pathogenesis.[11] According to his view, the pathogenesis of dermatomally distributed vitiligo involves some disturbance in some sympathetic nerves of the affected area, which influences the melanocyte causing their functional inhibition or destruction. In contrast, nondermatomal vitiligo has a different pathogenesis in which primary disturbance lies in the melanocyte itself, where an autoimmune mechanism is suspect. This clinical distinction of segmental vitiligo and nonsegmental vitiligo done by Koga has not been challenged until recently. The Vitiligo European Task Force (VETF) in its consensus paper has followed this classification of Koga.[12] The VETF concluded that there was no significant evidence that the various sub-types of nonsegmental vitiligo were clearly distinct. Only recently it has been reported that in certain vitiligo patients, a characteristic segmental involvement become associated usually in a second-step with bilateral vitiligo patches and the term “mixed vitiligo” has been proposed by Mulekar et al., to designate this particular form of the disease.[13] The sequence of early segmental vitiligo leading to late onset nonsegmental vitiligo as found in the study of Ezzedine et al.,[14] may reflect the role of a cutaneous gene defect causing segmental vitiligo and later triggering a generalized immune response against cutaneous melanocytes driven by another immune-related gene defect.[15]

The idea that histamine might act as a toxic mediator in the pathogenesis of vitiligo arose from the observation that a good number of vitiligo patients attending the Pigment Clinic gave a history of significant pruritus over vitiligo patches. More significantly, many patients gave a history of spread of vitiligo lesions just preceded by itching in the new areas. Such patients differed from the general pool of vitiligo patients in that they presented with hypo-pigmented patches scattered diffusely and were of short duration. Many of them gave history of sudden onset of such lesions with itching while several of them associated their lesions with photosensitivity and complained of flare-up of lesions after administration of melanizing agents. Histamine is particularly relevant in this context since histamine, which is also liberated along with other chemicals when cells are damaged, is one of the chemical mediators of itch. Moreover, there is evidence that in frog both histamine and histamine releaser produce skin color blanching and melanophor contraction. Also a significant number of vitiligo patients gave a history of atopy along with pruritus. The term atopy, or as presently used, atopic allergy implies a familial tendency to manifest alone or in combination such conditions as asthma, allergic rhinitis, and urticaria. Asthma is associated with increased IgE levels and high levels of IgE are found in patients with atopic dermatitis.[16] It has now been reported that histamine promotes the differentiation of dendritic cells toward a TH2 profile.[17] It is known that several hormones regulate melanogenesis through the action of ubiquitous cyclic adenosine monophosphate (AMP). High levels of cyclic AMP causes reduced secretion of histamine.

Based on the above facts and observations, it was hypothesized that histamine might act as a toxic mediator in the pathogenesis of a particular type of vitiligo.

   Materials and Methods Top

The present study is a retrospective analysis of data of a select group of patients attending the Pigment Clinic of the Department of Dermatology, SSKM Hospital and IPGME and R, Kolkata between February 1, 1975 and June 30, 1985.

Design of study

All new vitiligo patients attending the Pigment Clinic were closely scrutinized by carefully taken histories and thorough clinical examination. Only those patients satisfying one or more of the following criteria were selected for the study: (1) Presence of pruritus in the lesions; (2) Faintly defined hypopigmented guttate type lesions that are distributed in a diffuse manner and are of recent origin; (3) A positive history of atopy in the patient or in the family; and (4) Association of halo nevus, Koebner's phenomenon, or photosensitivity.

Patients studied

In the period under review, a total of 50 patients were studied. Detailed histories and clinical features were recorded systematically in charts. Important clinical data of the patients are summarized in [Table 1].
Table 1: Clinical data

Click here to view

Histopathological examination

From a small lesion of recent origin in a suitable area a thin slice of skin was taken with the help of a punch under local anesthesia. The tissue obtained by punch biopsy was subjected to conventional sectioning through the stages of fixation, dehydration, clearing, impregnation and embedding. Sections from each tissue are stained by haemtoxylin-eosin stain and by toluidine blue stain (for mast cells).

Blood histamine assay

Before giving any treatment to the patients, blood samples were taken for estimation of histamine levels in the blood. Five (5) ml of blood was dissolved in 10 ml of 10% trichloroacetic acid solution in a test-tube, and after vigorous shaking; the mixture was kept in a refrigerator. Estimation of blood histamine level was done by Bio-Assay method (H.O. Schild, 1942)[18] using a strip of terminal guinea pig ileum in an organ bath.

Dose-related contraction in the presence of atropine (to exclude acetylcholine activity) followed by inhibition of this activity by antihistamine mepyramine maleate confirms the presence of histamine. This method reliably detects concentrations in the range of 1-2.5 ng/ml.

   Results Top

Analysis of clinical data

Of the 50 patients studied, pruritus was a significant finding in 28 patients and atopy in 12 patients. Regarding distribution of lesions, symmetry was observed in 27 patients while only 4 patients revealed dermatomal pattern. Nine patients gave family history of vitiligo. And five patients had association with halo nevus.

Histopathological findings

The histology of lesions of recent origin revealed flattening of epidermis, homogenization (a ground glass appearance) of collagen in the upper dermis and mild increase of vascularity with slight perivascular infiltrate and edema. Melanocytes are decreased in number with scanty or absent pigment granules. Except three cases, infiltrate (which is chiefly lymphocytic) was patchy, scanty, and perivascular. In three specimens the infiltrates are slightly heavy in the border of the active lesions and in one the infiltrate invaded the epidermis. Mast cells are significantly increased in number and are loaded with numerous granules. No degeneration of nerve fibrils seen and the sweat glands and other appendages are normal.

Analysis of blood histamine values

The blood histamine values of vitiligo patients were significantly increased in comparison with values of matched controls (normal human volunteers) as shown by the overall mean values in [Table 2].
Table 2: Blood histamine levels (ng/ml) in vitiligo patients versus normal patients

Click here to view

When the blood histamine values of the vitiligo patients were further analyzed forming groups in terms of presence of or absence of pruritus, and length of duration, it was found that the blood histamine values were higher in all cases except those of long duration where the values are significantly lower than the general trend (P < 0.05). The overall mean values of different groups are compared in [Table 3]. Blood histaminase levels were also determined (expressed in provisional units/ml) and were found to be significantly high in vitiligo patients compared with normal group [Table 4]. High plasma histaminase values along with high blood histamine levels indicate even higher value of histamine in vitiligo than what has been found in the patients. The values are statistically significant. Significantly higher values of histamine in short duration cases is shown in a histogram [Figure 1].
Table 3: Blood histamine levels (ng/ml) in vitiligo patients

Click here to view
Table 4: Plasma histamine levels (pu1/ml) in vitiligo patients versus normal patients

Click here to view
Figure 1: Histamine value histogram

Click here to view

   Discussion Top

The precise cause of vitiligo is still unclear. However, multiple theories have been proposed, including genetic, autoimmune, neural, and biochemical mechanisms. Reviews addressing the etiology of vitiligo, viewed in totality suggest that vitiligo is probably a heterogeneous disease encompassing multiple etiologies.[19]

This study, performed in earlier times when modern immunological techniques were not available, showed that a considerable number of patients presented with pruritus and atopy and it seems reasonable that histamine might be acting as a toxic mediator in these cases. Histopathological study revealed slight perivascular infiltrate and moderately increased vascularity with some vasodilation and significantly increased number of mast cells. Also upper dermis showed some edema and homogenization of collagen. These vascular changes might be produced by histamine released in the tissue. Another consistent histopathological finding is the flattening of the epidermis. This flattening of the epidermis and vacuolization of some epithelial cells reflect an involvement of histamine since it has now been reported that histamine acts as an inhibitor of human keratinocytes and suppressor of epidermopoiesis in humans and animals. Blood histamine values of vitiligo patients are significantly higher than the values found in normal persons (P < 0.05). Also blood histaminase levels were determined and were found to be significantly elevated in vitiligo cases of short duration compared with normal control group. High plasma histaminases along with high blood histamine indicate even higher value of histamine in vitiligo. These observations support the hypothesis that histamine has a role in the pathogenesis of a particular type of vitiligo, characterized by faint white patches, pruritus, occasional intolerance to melanizing agents, and an association of atopy. Histamine might also be operative in the pathogenesis of other types of vitiligo but the present study has been restricted to a group of patients having vitiligo of a particular type specified.

Now it has been established that histamine regulates T-cell and B-cell function by differential expressions of H1 and H2 receptors.[20] Histamine enhances Th1 responses by triggering the H1 receptor, whereas both Th1 and Th2 responses are negatively regulated by H2 receptor via the activation of different intracellular signaling pathways. These findings indicate an important regulatory mechanism in the control of immune functions through release of histamine.

An immune-mediated pathogenesis is indeed the most popular theory. This theory is based on increased number of immune phenomena and immunological disorders seen in vitiligo patients. An increased frequency of hypothyroidism (e.g., Hashimoto thyroiditis, Graves' disease), diabetes mellitus, and alopecia areata are commonly seen in vitiligo patients. Humoral and cell-mediated immunological defects are common phenomena in vitiligo.[21]

Several investigators have also addressed the role of peripheral blood and lesional cytokine expression in the pathogenesis of vitiligo. Elevated levels of serum soluble IL-2 receptor, IL-6, and IL-8 and elevated lesional tissue levels of IL-2 have been reported in vitiligo patients.[22] Histamine activity regulates the formation of cytokines. Histamine, through the H2 receptor, reduces the production of IL-1, IL-6, and TNF-α from endotoxin-stimulated monocytes.[23] Thus, it has now been clear that histamine mediates some actions through various interleukin pathways and thus this finding can be taken to correlate with this study, which was performed much earlier, showing role of histamine in the pathogenesis of vitiligo of a particular kind.

   Conclusion Top

From our findings of high blood histamine level as well as high blood histaminases level in cases of a particular type of vitiligo of short duration and characterized by faint hypopigmented patches with significant itching, we hypothesize that histamine has a definite role in the pathogenesis of vitiligo. This study, which was performed much earlier, highlighted that some allergic phenomena were operative in the pathogenesis of vitiligo as evidenced by high levels of blood histamine and histaminases. The idea raised by this study that some allergic phenomena were suspect in the causation of vitiligo has been corroborated by subsequent workers showing autoimmune nature of the disease.

   References Top

1.Nordlund JJ, Ortonne JP. Vitiligo vulgaris. In: Nordlund JJ, Boissy RE, Hearing VJ, King RA, Ortonne JP, editors. The Pigmentary System. Physiology and Pathophysiology. New York: Oxford University Press; 1998. p. 513-51.  Back to cited text no. 1
2.Xu AE, Zhang DM, Wei XD, Huang B, Lu LJ. Efficacy and safety of tarcrolimus cream 0.1% in the treatment of vitiligo. Int J Dermatol 2009;48:86-90.  Back to cited text no. 2
3.Alkhateeb A, Fain PR, Thody A, Bennett DC, Spritz RA. Epidemiology of vitiligo and associated autoimmune diseases in Caucasian probands and their families. Pigment Cell Res 2003;16:208-14.  Back to cited text no. 3
4.Ongenae K, Van Geel N, Naeyaert JM. Evidence for an autoimmune pathogenesis of vitiligo. Pigment Cell Res 2003;16:90-100.  Back to cited text no. 4
5.Baharav E, Merimski O, Shoenfeld Y, Zigelman R, Gilbrud B, Yecheskel G, et al. Tyrosinase as an autoantigen in patients with vitiligo. Clin Exp Immunol 1996;105:84-8.  Back to cited text no. 5
6.Lerner AB, Nordlund JJ. Vitiligo. What is it? Is it important?. JAMA 1978;239:1183-7.  Back to cited text no. 6
7.Iyengar B. Modulation of melanocytic activity by acetylcholine. Acta Anat (Basel) 1989;136:139-41.  Back to cited text no. 7
8.Schallreuter KU, Wood JM, Pittelkow MR, Buttner G, Swanson N, Korner C, et al. Increased monoamine oxidase: A activity in the epidermis of patients with vitiligo. Arch Dermatol Res 1996;288:14-8.  Back to cited text no. 8
9.Lerner AB. Vitiligo. J Invest Dermatol 1959;32:285-310.  Back to cited text no. 9
10.Nordlund JJ, Ortonne JP, Poole CL. Vitiligo vulgaris. In: Nordlund JJ, Boissy RE, Hearing VJ, King RA, Oetting WS, Ortonne JP, editors. The Pigmentary System: Physiology and Pathology. 2 nd ed. Massachusetts, USA: Blackwell Publishing; 2006. p. 575.  Back to cited text no. 10
11.Koga M. Vitiligo: A new classification and therapy. Br J Dermatol 1977;97:255-61.  Back to cited text no. 11
12.Taieb A, Picardo M; VETF Members. The definition and assessment of vitiligo: A consensus report of the Vitiligo European Task Force. Pigment Cell Res 2007;20:27-35.  Back to cited text no. 12
13.Mulekar SV, Al Issa A, Assad M, Ghwish B, Al Eisa A. Mixed vitiligo. J Cutan Med Surg 2006;10:104-7.  Back to cited text no. 13
14.Ezzedine K, Gauthier Y, Léauté-Labrèze C, Marquez S, Bouchtnei S, Jouary T, et al. Segmental vitiligo associated with generalized vitiligo (mixed vitiligo): A retrospective case series of 19 patients. J Am Acad Dermatol 2011;65:965-71.  Back to cited text no. 14
15.Taïeb A, Morice-Picard F, Jouary T, Ezzedine K, Cario-André M, Gauthier Y. Segmenatl vitiligo as the possible expression of cutaneous somatic mosaicism: Implications for common non-segmental vitiligo. Pigment Cell Melanoma Res 2008;21:646-52.  Back to cited text no. 15
16.Burrows B, Martinez FD, Halonen M, Barbee RA, Cline MG. Association of asthma with serum IgE levels and skin-test reactivity to allergens. N Engl J Med 1989;320:271-7.  Back to cited text no. 16
17.Idzko M, la Sala A, Ferrari D, Panther E, Herouy Y, Dichmann S, et al. Expressions and function of histamine receptors in human monocyte-derived dendritic cells. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2002;109:839-46.  Back to cited text no. 17
18.Schild HO. A method of conducting a biological assay on a preparation giving repeated graded responses illustrated by the estimation of histamine. J Physiol. 1942;101:115-30.  Back to cited text no. 18
19.Kovacs SO. Vitiligo. J Am Acad Dermatol 1998;38:647-66.  Back to cited text no. 19
20.Jutel M, Watanabe T, Klunker S, Akdis M, Thomet OA, Malolepszy J, et al. Hisatmine regulates T-cell and antibody responses by differential expression of H1 and H2 receptors. Nature 2001;413:420-5.  Back to cited text no. 20
21.Boissy R, Le Poole C. Vitiligo. Semin Cutan Med Surg 1997;16:3.  Back to cited text no. 21
22.Yu HS, Chang KL, Yu CL, Li HF, Wu MT, Wu CS, et al. Alterations in IL-6, IL-8, GM-CSF, TNF-α and IFN-α release by peripheral mononuclear cells in patients with active vitiligo. J Invest Dermatol 1997;108:527-9.  Back to cited text no. 22
23.Falus A, Meretey K. Histamine: An early messenger in inflammatory and immune reactions. Immunol Today 1992;13:154-6.  Back to cited text no. 23

What is new?
Blood histamine as well as histaminases levels are found to be significantly high in a particular group of vitiligo patients. This points to autoimmune basis of etiology of vitiligo and indicate possible benefit to vitiligo patients with antihistamine therapy along with standard treatment regimen for vitiligo.


  [Figure 1]

  [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3], [Table 4]

This article has been cited by
1 Rhododendrol-induced leukoderma update II: Pathophysiology, mechanisms, risk evaluation, and possible mechanism-based treatments in comparison with vitiligo
Shintaro Inoue, Ichiro Katayama, Tamio Suzuki, Atsushi Tanemura, Shosuke Ito, Yuko Abe, Yasuyuki Sumikawa, Momoko Yoshikawa, Kayoko Suzuki, Akiko Yagami, Yukiko Masui, Akiko Ito, Kayoko Matsunaga
The Journal of Dermatology. 2021; 48(7): 969
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
2 Role of Amine Neurotransmitters and Their Receptors in Skin Pigmentation: Therapeutic Implication
Enkhmend Enkhtaivan, Chang Hoon Lee
International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2021; 22(15): 8071
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
3 The role of the mast cell in pigmentation disorders
ValdemarWendelboe Nielsen, SimonFrancis Thomsen
Pigment International. 2021; 8(2): 73
[Pubmed] | [DOI]


Print this article  Email this article
    Similar in PUBMED
 Related articles
    Article in PDF (612 KB)
    Citation Manager
    Access Statistics
    Reader Comments
    Email Alert *
    Add to My List *
* Registration required (free)  

    Materials and Me...
    Article Figures
    Article Tables

 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded133    
    Comments [Add]    
    Cited by others 3    

Recommend this journal