Neuropeptide Y (NPY) expression is limited to tissues of the central and peripheral nervous system. In the adrenal gland, NPY is found in a subset of cells of the adrenal medulla. Using in situ hybridization analysis, NPY mRNA expression was characterized during human fetal adrenal medullary development. We found a biphasic pattern of NPY mRNA expression during the development of the human adrenal medulla. NPY mRNA is detectable at the earliest evaluable time point (7.5 weeks of gestational age) through 18 weeks of gestational age, and is then not detectable until 8 months after birth. We also analyzed NPY mRNA expression in neuroblastoma tumors, which often arise in the adrenal meduila. Thirty-eight neuroblastoma tumors were analyzed for NPY mRNA expression using in situ hybridization. We found NPY mRNA expression in 30 of 38 tumors; 15 of 15 Stage IVS tumors from children under 1 year of age at diagnosis expressed NPY mRNA, whereas 0 of 4 Stage IV tumors from children less than 1 year of age at diagnosis expressed NPY mRNA. These data suggest that in children under 1 year of age at diagnosis, Stage IVS and Stage IV neuroblastoma may be marked by the presence or absence, respectively, of NPY mRNA expression. Moreover, since NPY is expressed for only a short period of time during embryogenesis, these tumors may arise from different neuroblast populations occurring during the course of adrenal medullary development.