We have analyzed the expression of the intracellular marker protein neuron specific enolase (NSE), synaptophysin (SYN) and of the cell surface marker NCAM (neural cell adhesion molecule) in both normal human hypophysis and in pituitary adenomas in order to explore their potential use as diagnostic tools. All adenomas (4 prolactinomas, 3 growth hormone (GH) producing adenomas and 4 inactive adenomas) showed SYN and NSE immunoreactivity on tissue sections and this was confirmed by immunoblots. NCAM 140 (an isoform of NCAM with molecular mass 140 kDa) was detected by immunoblotting in normal human adenohypophysis, in all GH adenomas, and in three out of four inactive adenomas, but not in prolactinomas. Using highly sensitive techniques, NCAM immunoreactivity was observed by electron microscopy in all adenomas. These data indicate that NCAM 140 is a constituent of the cell surface of endocrine cells in both normal human adenohypophysis and its tumors. Since prolactinomas express very low levels of NCAM 140 compared to other hypophyseal tumors its virtual absence could be used for differential diagnosis. A combined analysis of NCAM, SYN and NSE could be useful to characterize inactive adenomas which are not immunoreactive for pituitary hormones and which may contain no or only low levels of the alpha chain of the glycoprotein hormones.