Pituitary Gland

A small oval endocrine gland attached to the base of the vertebrate brain and consisting of an anterior and a posterior lobe, the secretions of which control the other endocrine glands and influence growth, metabolism, and maturation. Also called hypophysis, pituitary body.
It is most structurally and functionally complex organ of endocrine system. All vertebrates have a pituitary gland with a common basic structure and function. In addition to its endocrine functions, the pituitary may play a role in the immune response.



The hypophysis of all vertebrates has two major segments—the neurohypophysis (a neural component) and the adenohypophysis (an epithelial component)—each with a different embryological origin. The neurohypophysis develops from a downward process of the diencephalon (the base of the brain), whereas the adenohypophysis originates as an outpocketing of the primitive buccal epithelium, known as Rathke's pouch. The adenohypophysis has three distinct subdivisions: the pars tuberalis, the pars distalis, and the pars intermedia. The neurohypophysis comprises the pars nervosa and the infundibulum. The latter consists of the infundibular stalk and the median eminence of the tuber cinereum.
The anterior pituitary
It contains five different types of cell, each of which produce one particular hormone, with the exception of the ‘gonadotrophs’ which produce two: namely luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicular stimulating hormone (FSH). All the hormones are peptide or protein in nature, varying in size from 39 amino acids (ACTH) to 204 amino acids (LH and FSH). The hormones fall into two groups: the first contains the four trophic hormones (from the Greek for nourishment), which control other endocrine glands; the second contains prolactin and growth hormone, which have more widespread effects in the body.
The trophic hormones act to stimulate secretion of hormone from the target gland and to maintain its function and, if present in high concentrations, will cause the gland to enlarge. They are:

  •  thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which stimulates the secretion of the thyroid hormones;
  •  adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), which acts on the adrenal cortex to promote the release of cortisol;
  • gonadotrophins LH and FSH, which act on the ovaries and testes. They are however named after their effects in women; FSH stimulates growth of the ovarian follicle containing the ovum or egg and LH stimulates production of oestrogen and progesterone from the ovary. The actions in the male are analogous; FSH stimulates sperm production and LH stimulates testosterone production by the testes.

Prolactin acts chiefly to cause milk production in the breasts.
Growth hormone has widespread effects, necessary not only for growth itself but also for metabolism throughout life.
Because the pituitary controls so many endocrine functions in the body it has been called ‘the conductor of the endocrine orchestra’, but more recent discoveries suggested that this term more properly belongs to the hypothalamus, with the pituitary being comparable to the leader of the orchestra. Since the nerves going to the anterior pituitary only supply the blood vessels there was some debate as to how the gland was controlled. It is now known that the hypothalamus produces stimulatory and inhibitory hormones, and that these reach the anterior pituitary via a network of small blood vessels or capillaries. The hormones are produced in nerve cells whose endings abut on the capillaries at the top of the pituitary stalk. This control of the pituitary by the central nervous system allows blood concentrations of the hormones to respond to a variety of external stimuli including stress. It also allows for complex patterning of release. Pituitary hormones in general are released in a pulsatile fashion, with many pulses during the day, and they can also show 24 hour (diurnal) rhythms. The gonadotrophins, linked into the human menstrual cycle, show a 28 day rhythm, while in animals which are seasonal breeders prolactin shows a seasonal rhythm. Blood concentrations of pituitary hormones are controlled not only by the hypothalamic hormones but by feedback, usually negative, exerted by target organ hormones such as cortisol or progesterone.

The posterior pituitary
Two hormones are released from the posterior lobe, oxytocin and vasopressin (syn. antidiuretic hormone) . These, like the releasing hormones that reach the anterior lobe, are produced within nerve cells in the hypothalamus. But in this case the axons travel right down the pituitary stalk, and the nerve endings release the hormones directly into the bloodstream (see endocrine). The activity of the posterior pituitary hormones was established around 1900 in the UK by Schafer (a physiologist) and his colleagues working on what proved to be the actions of vasopressin, and Dale, a pharmacologist and Nobel Prize winner working on oxytocin. Vasopressin plays a role in water balance and the maintenance of blood pressure, normal circulating concentrations causing water to be retained by the kidney and higher concentrations causing blood vessels to constrict, thus raising blood pressure. As with the anterior pituitary, control via the hypothalamus means that release of posterior pituitary hormones can be regulated by a variety of nervous inputs; the main stimuli for vasopressin release are an increase in the concentration of the blood plasma and a decrease in circulating blood volume, both of which reflect a fall in total body water. Oxytocin is important for the birth of an infant and for delivery of the milk supply.

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