When a change occurs in an animal’s environment, an adjustment must be made. The receptor senses the change in the environment, then sends a signal to the control center (in most cases, the brain) which in turn generates a response that is signaled to an effector. The effector is a muscle (that contracts or relaxes) or a gland that secretes. Homeostatsis is maintained by negative feedback loops. Positive feedback loops actually push the organism further out of homeostasis, but may be necessary for life to occur. Homeostasis is controlled by the nervous and endocrine system of mammals.
Negative Feedback Mechanisms
Any homeostatic process that changes the direction of the stimulus is a negative feedback loop. It may either increase or decrease the stimulus, but the stimulus is not allowed to continue as it did before the receptor sensed it. In other words, if a level is too high, the body does something to bring it down, and conversely, if a level is too low, the body does something to make it go up. Hence the term negative feedback. An example is animal maintenance of blood glucose levels. When an animal has eaten, blood glucose levels rise. This is sensed by the nervous system. Specialized cells in the pancreas sense this, and the hormone insulin is released by the endocrine system. Insulin causes blood glucose levels to decrease, as would be expected in a negative feedback system, as illustrated in Figure 1. However, if an animal has not eaten and blood glucose levels decrease, this is sensed in another group of cells in the pancreas, and the hormone glucagon is released causing glucose levels to increase. This is still a negative feedback loop, but not in the direction expected by the use of the term “negative.” Another example of an increase as a result of the feedback loop is the control of blood calcium. If calcium levels decrease, specialized cells in the parathyroid gland sense this and release parathyroid hormone (PTH), causing an increased absorption of calcium through the intestines and kidneys and, possibly, the breakdown of bone in order to liberate calcium. The effects of PTH are to raise blood levels of the element. Negative feedback loops are the predominant mechanism used in homeostasis.
Positive Feedback Loop
A positive feedback loop maintains the direction of the stimulus, possibly accelerating it. Few examples of positive feedback loops exist in animal bodies, but one is found in the cascade of chemical reactions that result in blood clotting, or coagulation. As one clotting factor is activated, it activates the next factor in sequence until a fibrin clot is achieved. The direction is maintained, not changed, so this is positive feedback. Another example of positive feedback is uterine contractions during childbirth, as illustrated in Figure 2. The hormone oxytocin, made by the endocrine system, stimulates the contraction of the uterus. This produces pain sensed by the nervous system. Instead of lowering the oxytocin and causing the pain to subside, more oxytocin is produced until the contractions are powerful enough to produce childbirth.
State whether each of the following processes is regulated by a positive feedback loop or a negative feedback loop.
- A person feels satiated after eating a large meal.
- The blood has plenty of red blood cells. As a result, erythropoietin, a hormone that stimulates the production of new red blood cells, is no longer released from the kidney.
It is possible to adjust a system’s set point. When this happens, the feedback loop works to maintain the new setting. An example of this is blood pressure: over time, the normal or set point for blood pressure can increase as a result of continued increases in blood pressure. The body no longer recognizes the elevation as abnormal and no attempt is made to return to the lower set point. The result is the maintenance of an elevated blood pressure that can have harmful effects on the body. Medication can lower blood pressure and lower the set point in the system to a more healthy level. This is called a process of alteration of the set point in a feedback loop.
Changes can be made in a group of body organ systems in order to maintain a set point in another system. This is called acclimatization. This occurs, for instance, when an animal migrates to a higher altitude than it is accustomed to. In order to adjust to the lower oxygen levels at the new altitude, the body increases the number of red blood cells circulating in the blood to ensure adequate oxygen delivery to the tissues. Another example of acclimatization is animals that have seasonal changes in their coats: a heavier coat in the winter ensures adequate heat retention, and a light coat in summer assists in keeping body temperature from rising to harmful levels.
Feedback mechanisms can be understood in terms of driving a race car along a track: watch a short video lesson on positive and negative feedback loops.