In some animals (such as the claw-toed frog Xenopus laevis) production of MSH is increased when the animal is in a dark location. This causes pigment to be dispersed in pigment cells in the toad's skin, making it become darker, and harder for predators to spot. The pigment cells are called melanophores and therefore, in amphibians, the hormone is often called melanophore-stimulating hormone.
An increase in MSH will cause a darkening in humans too. MSH increases in humans during pregnancy. This, along with increased estrogens, causes increased pigmentation in pregnant women. Cushing's syndrome due to excess adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) may also result in hyperpigmentation, such as acanthosis nigricans in the axilla. Most people with primary Addison's disease have darkening (hyperpigmentation) of the skin, including areas not exposed to the sun; characteristic sites are skin creases (e.g. of the hands), nipple, and the inside of the cheek (buccal mucosa), new scars become hyperpigmented, whereas older ones do not darken. This occurs because MSH and ACTH share the same precursor molecule, proopiomelanocortin (POMC).
Different levels of MSH are not the major cause of racial variation in skin colour. However, in many red-headed people, and other people who do not tan well, there are variations in their hormone receptors, causing them to not respond to MSH in the blood.
The different forms of MSH belong to a group called the melanocortins. This group includes ACTH, α-MSH, β-MSH, and γ-MSH; these peptides are all cleavage products of a large precursor peptide called proopiomelanocortin (POMC). α-MSH is the most important melanocortin for pigmentation.
An additional analogue called melanotan II causes enhanced libido and erections in most male test subjects and arousal with corresponding genital involvement in most female test subjects.Bremelanotide (formerly PT-141) which stemmed from melanotan II research is currently under development for its aphrodisiac effects. These effects are mediated by actions in the hypothalamus on neurons that express MC3 and MC4 receptors.