Hypothalamic-Pituitary Axis

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the role of the hypothalamic-pituitary axis in the endocrine system

The hypothalamus in vertebrates integrates the endocrine and nervous systems. The hypothalamus is an endocrine organ located in the diencephalon of the brain. It receives input from the body and other brain areas and initiates endocrine responses to environmental changes. The hypothalamus acts as an endocrine organ, synthesizing hormones and transporting them along axons to the posterior pituitary gland. It synthesizes and secretes regulatory hormones that control the endocrine cells in the anterior pituitary gland. The hypothalamus contains autonomic centers that control endocrine cells in the adrenal medulla via neuronal control.

The pituitary gland, sometimes called the hypophysis or “master gland” is located at the base of the brain in the sella turcica, a groove of the sphenoid bone of the skull, illustrated in Figure 1. It is attached to the hypothalamus via a stalk called the pituitary stalk (or infundibulum). The anterior portion of the pituitary gland is regulated by releasing or release-inhibiting hormones produced by the hypothalamus, and the posterior pituitary receives signals via neurosecretory cells to release hormones produced by the hypothalamus. The pituitary has two distinct regions—the anterior pituitary and the posterior pituitary—which between them secrete nine different peptide or protein hormones. The posterior lobe of the pituitary gland contains axons of the hypothalamic neurons.

The pituitary gland sits at the base of the brain, just above the brain stem. It is lobe-shaped and hangs down from the hypothalamus, to which it is connected to via a narrow stalk. The anterior part of the pituitary is toward the front, and the posterior end is toward the back.

Figure 1. The pituitary gland is located at (a) the base of the brain and (b) connected to the hypothalamus by the pituitary stalk. (credit a: modification of work by NCI; credit b: modification of work by Gray’s Anatomy)

Anterior Pituitary

The anterior pituitary gland, or adenohypophysis, is surrounded by a capillary network that extends from the hypothalamus, down along the infundibulum, and to the anterior pituitary. This capillary network is a part of the hypophyseal portal system that carries substances from the hypothalamus to the anterior pituitary and hormones from the anterior pituitary into the circulatory system. A portal system carries blood from one capillary network to another; therefore, the hypophyseal portal system allows hormones produced by the hypothalamus to be carried directly to the anterior pituitary without first entering the circulatory system.

The anterior pituitary produces seven hormones: growth hormone (GH), prolactin (PRL), thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), melanin-stimulating hormone (MSH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and luteinizing hormone (LH). Anterior pituitary hormones are sometimes referred to as tropic hormones, because they control the functioning of other organs. While these hormones are produced by the anterior pituitary, their production is controlled by regulatory hormones produced by the hypothalamus. These regulatory hormones can be releasing hormones or inhibiting hormones, causing more or less of the anterior pituitary hormones to be secreted. These travel from the hypothalamus through the hypophyseal portal system to the anterior pituitary where they exert their effect. Negative feedback then regulates how much of these regulatory hormones are released and how much anterior pituitary hormone is secreted.

Posterior Pituitary

The posterior pituitary is significantly different in structure from the anterior pituitary. It is a part of the brain, extending down from the hypothalamus, and contains mostly nerve fibers and neuroglial cells, which support axons that extend from the hypothalamus to the posterior pituitary. The posterior pituitary and the infundibulum together are referred to as the neurohypophysis.

The hormones antidiuretic hormone (ADH), also known as vasopressin, and oxytocin are produced by neurons in the hypothalamus and transported within these axons along the infundibulum to the posterior pituitary. They are released into the circulatory system via neural signaling from the hypothalamus. These hormones are considered to be posterior pituitary hormones, even though they are produced by the hypothalamus, because that is where they are released into the circulatory system. The posterior pituitary itself does not produce hormones, but instead stores hormones produced by the hypothalamus and releases them into the blood stream.

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