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17.1 An Overview of the Endocrine System

The endocrine system consists of cells, tissues, and organs that secrete hormones critical to homeostasis. The body coordinates its functions through two major types of communication: neural and endocrine. Neural communication includes both electrical and chemical signaling between neurons and target cells. Endocrine communication involves chemical signaling via the release of hormones into the extracellular fluid. From there, hormones diffuse into the bloodstream and may travel to distant body regions, where they elicit a response in target cells. Endocrine glands are ductless glands that secrete hormones. Many organs of the body with other primary functions—such as the heart, stomach, and kidneys—also have hormone-secreting cells.

17.2 Hormones

Hormones are derived from amino acids or lipids. Amine hormones originate from the amino acids tryptophan or tyrosine. Larger amino acid hormones include peptides and protein hormones. Steroid hormones are derived from cholesterol.

Steroid hormones and thyroid hormone are lipid soluble. All other amino acid–derived hormones are water soluble. Hydrophobic hormones are able to diffuse through the membrane and interact with an intracellular receptor. In contrast, hydrophilic hormones must interact with cell membrane receptors. These are typically associated with a G protein, which becomes activated when the hormone binds the receptor. This initiates a signaling cascade that involves a second messenger, such as cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). Second messenger systems greatly amplify the hormone signal, creating a broader, more efficient, and faster response.

Hormones are released upon stimulation that is of either chemical or neural origin. Regulation of hormone release is primarily achieved through negative feedback. Various stimuli may cause the release of hormones, but there are three major types. Humoral stimuli are changes in ion or nutrient levels in the blood. Hormonal stimuli are changes in hormone levels that initiate or inhibit the secretion of another hormone. Finally, a neural stimulus occurs when a nerve impulse prompts the secretion or inhibition of a hormone.

17.3 The Pituitary Gland and Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus–pituitary complex is located in the diencephalon of the brain. The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland are connected by a structure called the infundibulum, which contains vasculature and nerve axons. The pituitary gland is divided into two distinct structures with different embryonic origins. The posterior lobe houses the axon terminals of hypothalamic neurons. It stores and releases into the bloodstream two hypothalamic hormones: oxytocin and antidiuretic hormone (ADH). The anterior lobe is connected to the hypothalamus by vasculature in the infundibulum and produces and secretes six hormones. Their secretion is regulated, however, by releasing and inhibiting hormones from the hypothalamus. The six anterior pituitary hormones are: growth hormone (GH), thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), and prolactin (PRL).

17.4 The Thyroid Gland

The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ located in the neck anterior to the trachea. Its hormones regulate basal metabolism, oxygen use, nutrient metabolism, the production of ATP, and calcium homeostasis. They also contribute to protein synthesis and the normal growth and development of body tissues, including maturation of the nervous system, and they increase the body’s sensitivity to catecholamines. The thyroid hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) are produced and secreted by the thyroid gland in response to thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) from the anterior pituitary. Synthesis of the amino acid–derived T3 and T4 hormones requires iodine. Insufficient amounts of iodine in the diet can lead to goiter, cretinism, and many other disorders.

17.5 The Parathyroid Glands

Calcium is required for a variety of important physiologic processes, including neuromuscular functioning; thus, blood calcium levels are closely regulated. The parathyroid glands are small structures located on the posterior thyroid gland that produce parathyroid hormone (PTH), which regulates blood calcium levels. Low blood calcium levels cause the production and secretion of PTH. In contrast, elevated blood calcium levels inhibit secretion of PTH and trigger secretion of the thyroid hormone calcitonin. Underproduction of PTH can result in hypoparathyroidism. In contrast, overproduction of PTH can result in hyperparathyroidism.

17.6 The Adrenal Glands

The adrenal glands, located superior to each kidney, consist of two regions: the adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla. The adrenal cortex—the outer layer of the gland—produces mineralocorticoids, glucocorticoids, and androgens. The adrenal medulla at the core of the gland produces epinephrine and norepinephrine.

The adrenal glands mediate a short-term stress response and a long-term stress response. A perceived threat results in the secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal medulla, which mediate the fight-or-flight response. The long-term stress response is mediated by the secretion of CRH from the hypothalamus, which triggers ACTH, which in turn stimulates the secretion of corticosteroids from the adrenal cortex. The mineralocorticoids, chiefly aldosterone, cause sodium and fluid retention, which increases blood volume and blood pressure.

17.7 The Pineal Gland

The pineal gland is an endocrine structure of the diencephalon of the brain, and is located inferior and posterior to the thalamus. It is made up of pinealocytes. These cells produce and secrete the hormone melatonin in response to low light levels. High blood levels of melatonin induce drowsiness. Jet lag, caused by traveling across several time zones, occurs because melatonin synthesis takes several days to readjust to the light-dark patterns in the new environment.

17.8 Gonadal and Placental Hormones

The reproductive system is regulated by follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) produced by the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland in response to gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) from the hypothalamus. FSH stimulates sperm maturation, which is inhibited by the hormone inhibin. The steroid hormone testosterone, a type of androgen, is released in response to LH and is responsible for the maturation and maintenance of the testicular reproductive system, as well as the development of secondary sex characteristics. FSH also promotes egg maturation and LH signals the secretion of the sex hormones, the estrogens and progesterone. Both of these hormones are important in the development and maintenance of the ovarian reproductive system, as well as maintaining pregnancy. The placenta develops during early pregnancy, and secretes several hormones important for maintaining the pregnancy.

17.9 The Endocrine Pancreas

The pancreas has both exocrine and endocrine functions. The pancreatic islet cell types include alpha cells, which produce glucagon; beta cells, which produce insulin; delta cells, which produce somatostatin; and PP cells, which produce pancreatic polypeptide. Insulin and glucagon are involved in the regulation of glucose metabolism. Insulin is produced by the beta cells in response to high blood glucose levels. It enhances glucose uptake and utilization by target cells, as well as the storage of excess glucose for later use. Dysfunction of the production of insulin or target cell resistance to the effects of insulin causes diabetes mellitus, a disorder characterized by high blood glucose levels. The hormone glucagon is produced and secreted by the alpha cells of the pancreas in response to low blood glucose levels. Glucagon stimulates mechanisms that increase blood glucose levels, such as the catabolism of glycogen into glucose.

17.10 Organs with Secondary Endocrine Functions

Some organs have a secondary endocrine function. For example, the walls of the atria of the heart produce the hormone atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP), the gastrointestinal tract produces the hormones gastrin, secretin, and cholecystokinin, which aid in digestion, and the kidneys produce erythropoietin (EPO), which stimulates the formation of red blood cells. Even bone, adipose tissue, and the skin have secondary endocrine functions.

17.11 Development and Aging of the Endocrine System

The endocrine system originates from all three germ layers of the embryo, including the endoderm, ectoderm, and mesoderm. In general, different hormone classes arise from distinct germ layers. Aging affects the endocrine glands, potentially affecting hormone production and secretion, and can cause disease. The production of hormones, such as human growth hormone, cortisol, aldosterone, sex hormones, and the thyroid hormones, decreases with age.

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