Organs whose function it is to secrete into the blood or lymph, substances known as HORMONES. These play an important part in general changes to or the activities of other organs at a distance. Various diseases arise as the result of defects or excess in the internal secretions of the diﬀerent glands. The chief endocrine glands are:
Adrenal glands These two glands, also known as suprarenal glands, lie immediately above the kidneys. The central or medullary portion of the glands forms the secretions known as ADRENALINE (or epinephrine) and NORADRENALINE. Adrenaline acts upon structures innervated by sympathetic nerves. Brieﬂy, the blood vessels of the skin and of the abdominal viscera (except the intestines) are constricted, and at the same time the arteries of the muscles and the coronary arteries are dilated; systolic blood pressure rises; blood sugar increases; the metabolic rate rises; muscle fatigue is diminished. The superﬁcial or cortical part of the glands produces steroid-based substances such as aldosterone, cortisone, hydrocortisone, and deoxycortone acetate, for the maintenance of life. It is the absence of these substances, due to atrophy or destruction of the suprarenal cortex, that is responsible for the condition known as ADDISON’S DISEASE. (See CORTICOSTEROIDS.)
Ovaries and testicles The ovary (see OVARIES) secretes at least two hormones – known, respectively, as oestradiol (follicular hormone) and progesterone (corpus luteum hormone). Oestradiol develops (under the stimulus of the anterior pituitary lobe – see PITUITARY GLAND below, and under separate entry) each time an ovum in the ovary becomes mature, and causes extensive proliferation of the ENDOMETRIUM lining the UTERUS, a stage ending with shedding of the ovum about 14 days before the onset of MENSTRUATION. The corpus luteum, which then forms, secretes both progesterone and oestradiol. Progesterone brings about great activity of the glands in the endometrium. The uterus is now ready to receive the ovum if it is fertilised. If fertilisation does not occur, the corpus luteum degenerates, the hormones cease acting, and menstruation takes place.
The hormone secreted by the testicles (see TESTICLE) is known as TESTOSTERONE. It is responsible for the growth of the male secondary sex characteristics.
Pancreas This gland is situated in the upper part of the abdomen and, in addition to the digestive enzymes, it produces INSULIN within specialised cells (islets of Langerhans). This controls carbohydrate metabolism; faulty or absent insulin production causes DIABETES MELLITUS.
Parathyroid glands These are four minute glands lying at the side of, or behind, the thyroid (see below). They have a certain eﬀect in controlling the absorption of calcium salts by the bones and other tissues. When their secretion is defective, TETANY occurs.
Pituitary gland This gland is attached to the base of the brain and rests in a hollow on the base of the skull. It is the most important of all endocrine glands and consists of two embryologically and functionally distinct lobes.
The function of the anterior lobe depends on the secretion by the HYPOTHALAMUS of certain ‘neuro-hormones’ which control the secretion of the pituitary trophic hormones. The hypothalamic centres involved in the control of speciﬁc pituitary hormones appear to be anatomically separate. Through the pituitary trophic hormones the activity of the thyroid, adrenal cortex and the sex glands is controlled. The anterior pituitary and the target glands are linked through a feedback control cycle. The liberation of trophic hormones is inhibited by a rising concentration of the circulating hormone of the target gland, and stimulated by a fall in its concentration. Six trophic (polypeptide) hormones are formed by the anterior pituitary. Growth hormone (GH) and prolactin are simple proteins formed in the acidophil cells. Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinising hormone (LH) and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) are glycoproteins formed in the basophil cells. Adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), although a polypeptide, is derived from basophil cells.
The posterior pituitary lobe, or neurohypophysis, is closely connected with the hypothalamus by the hypothalamic-hypophyseal tracts. It is concerned with the production or storage of OXYTOCIN and vasopressin (the antidiuretic hormone).
PITUITARY HORMONES Growth hormone, gonadotrophic hormone, adrenocorticotrophic hormone and thyrotrophic hormones can be assayed in blood or urine by radio-immunoassay techniques. Growth hormone extracted from human pituitary glands obtained at autopsy was available for clinical use until 1985, when it was withdrawn as it is believed to carry the virus responsible for CREUTZFELDT-JAKOB DISEASE (COD). However, growth hormone produced by DNA recombinant techniques is now available as somatropin. Synthetic growth hormone is used to treat deﬁciency of the natural hormone in children and adults, TURNER’S SYNDROME and chronic renal insuﬃciency in children.
Human pituitary gonadotrophins are readily obtained from post-menopausal urine. Commercial extracts from this source are available and are eﬀective for treatment of infertility due to gonadotrophin insuﬃciency.
The adrenocorticotrophic hormone is extracted from animal pituitary glands and has been available therapeutically for many years. It is used as a test of adrenal function, and, under certain circumstances, in conditions for which corticosteroid therapy is indicated (see CORTICOSTEROIDS). The pharmacologically active polypeptide of ACTH has been synthesised and is called tetracosactrin. Thyrotrophic hormone is also available but it has no therapeutic application.
HYPOTHALAMIC RELEASING HORMONES which aﬀect the release of each of the six anterior pituitary hormones have been identiﬁed. Their blood levels are only one-thousandth of those of the pituitary trophic hormones. The release of thyrotrophin, adrenocorticotrophin, growth hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinising hormone is stimulated, while release of prolactin is inhibited. The structure of the releasing hormones for TSH, FSH-LH, GH and, most recently, ACTH is known and they have all been synthesised. Thyrotrophin-releasing hormone (TRH) is used as a diagnostic test of thyroid function but it has no therapeutic application. FSH-LH-releasing hormone provides a useful diagnostic test of gonadotrophin reserve in patients with pituitary disease, and is now used in the treatment of infertility and AMENORRHOEA in patients with functional hypothalamic disturbance. As this is the most common variety of secondary amenorrhoea, the potential use is great. Most cases of congenital deﬁciency of GH, FSH, LH and ACTH are due to defects in the hypothalamic production of releasing hormone and are not a primary pituitary defect, so that the therapeutic implication of this synthesised group of releasing hormones is considerable.
GALACTORRHOEA is frequently due to a microadenoma (see ADENOMA) of the pituitary. DOPAMINE is the prolactin-release inhibiting hormone. Its duration of action is short so its therapeutic value is limited. However, BROMOCRIPTINE is a dopamine agonist with a more prolonged action and is eﬀective treatment for galactorrhoea.
Thyroid gland The functions of the thyroid gland are controlled by the pituitary gland (see above) and the hypothalamus, situated in the brain. The thyroid, situated in the front of the neck below the LARYNX, helps to regulate the body’s METABOLISM. It comprises two lobes each side of the TRACHEA joined by an isthmus. Two types of secretory cells in the gland – follicular cells (the majority) and parafollicular cells – secrete, respectively, the iodine-containing hormones THYROXINE (T4) and TRI-IODOTHYRONINE (T3), and the hormone CALCITONIN. T3 and T4 help control metabolism and calcitonin, in conjunction with parathyroid hormone (see above), regulates the body’s calcium balance. Deﬁciencies in thyroid function produce HYPOTHYROIDISM and, in children, retarded development. Excess thyroid activity causes thyrotoxicosis. (See THYROID GLAND, DISEASES OF.)