United States National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health

Fact Sheet
Medical Subject Headings (MeSH®)

The Thesaurus

MeSH is the National Library of Medicine's controlled vocabulary thesaurus. It consists of sets of terms naming descriptors in a hierarchical structure that permits searching at various levels of specificity.

MeSH descriptors are arranged in both an alphabetic and a hierarchical structure. At the most general level of the hierarchical structure are very broad headings such as "Anatomy" or "Mental Disorders." More specific headings are found at more narrow levels of the eleven-level hierarchy, such as "Ankle" and "Conduct Disorder." There are 25,186 descriptors in 2009 MeSH. There are also over 160,000 entry terms that assist in finding the most appropriate MeSH Heading, for example, "Vitamin C" is an entry term to "Ascorbic Acid." In addition to these headings, there are more than 180,000 headings called Supplementary Concept Records (formerly Supplementary Chemical Records) within a separate thesaurus.

MeSH Applications

The MeSH thesaurus is used by NLM for indexing articles from 5,200 of the world's leading biomedical journals for the MEDLINE/PubMED® database. It is also used for the NLM-produced database that includes cataloging of books, documents, and audiovisuals acquired by the Library. Each bibliographic reference is associated with a set of MeSH terms that describe the content of the item. Similarly, search queries use MeSH vocabulary to find items on a desired topic.

Establishing and Updating MeSH

The Medical Subject Headings Section staff continually revise and update the MeSH vocabulary. Staff subject specialists are responsible for areas of the health sciences in which they have knowledge and expertise. In addition to receiving suggestions from indexers and others, the staff collect new terms as they appear in the scientific literature or in emerging areas of research; define these terms within the context of existing vocabulary; and recommend their addition to MeSH. Professionals in various disciplines are also consulted regarding broad organizational changes and close coordination is maintained with various specialized vocabularies.

MeSH Data

MeSH, in machine-readable form, is provided at no charge via electronic means. The MeSH Web site http://www.nlm.nih.gov/mesh is the central access point for additional information about MeSH and for obtaining MeSH in electronic form.

Questions about the Library's MeSH program may be directed to:

Stuart Nelson, M.D.
Head, Medical Subject Headings
National Library of Medicine
8600 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20894
Phone: (301) 496-1495
Fax: (301) 402-2002
Email: nelson@nlm.nih.gov
MeSH Section home page on the Web: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/mesh

A complete list of NLM Fact Sheets is available at:
(alphabetical list): http://www.nlm.nih.gov/pubs/factsheets/factsheets.html
(subject list): http://www.nlm.nih.gov/pubs/factsheets/factsubj.html

Or write to:

Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Library of Medicine
8600 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, Maryland 20894

Phone: (301) 496-6308
FAX:(301) 496-4450
Email: publicinfo@nlm.nih.gov

Last reviewed: 15 December 2008
Last updated: 15 December 2008
First published: 01 September 1999
Metadata| Permanence level: Permanent: Stable Content