endocrine system

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Related to endocrine system: Endocrine glands, Exocrine system

endocrine system

endocrine system (ĕnˈdəkrĭn), body control system composed of a group of glands that maintain a stable internal environment by producing chemical regulatory substances called hormones. The endocrine system includes the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, adrenal gland, pancreas, ovaries, and testes (see testis). The thymus gland, pineal gland, and kidney (see urinary system) are also sometimes considered endocrine organs.

The endocrine glands appear unique in that the hormones they produce do not pass through tubes or ducts. The hormones are secreted directly into the internal environment, where they are transmitted via the bloodstream or by diffusion and act at distant points in the body. In contrast, other glands including sweat glands, salivary glands, and glands of the gastrointestinal system secrete the substances they produce through ducts, and those substances are used in the vicinity of the gland.

The regulation of body functions by the endocrine system depends on the existence of specific receptor cells in target organs that respond in specialized ways to the minute quantities of the hormonal messengers. Some endocrine hormones, such as thyroxine from the thyroid gland, affect nearly all body cells; others, such as progesterone from the female ovary, which regulates the uterine lining, affect only a single organ. The amounts of hormones are maintained by feedback mechanisms that depend on interactions between the endocrine glands, the blood levels of the various hormones, and activities of the target organ. Hormones act by regulating cell metabolism. By accelerating, slowing, or maintaining enzyme activity in receptor cells, hormones control growth and development, metabolic rate, sexual rhythms, and reproduction.

Pituitary Control

The master gland, i.e., the gland that regulates many of the other endocrine glands, is the pituitary, located at the base of the brain. Also called the hypophysis, the pituitary secretes at least five hormones that directly affect the other endocrine glands. It secretes thyrotropin, which manages thyroid gland activity, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which regulates activity of the adrenal cortex, and three gonadotropic hormones, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), and luteotropic hormone (LTH), all of which control the growth and reproductive activities of the sex glands. The pituitary also produces substances that do not act directly on other endocrine glands: somatotropic hormone, or growth hormone, which controls growth in all tissues; antidiuretic hormone (ADH), which controls the rate of water excretion in the urine; oxytocin, which stimulates uterine contraction and helps regulate milk production by the breasts; and melanocyte-stimulating hormone, which regulates the activity of the melanocytes, or pigment-producing cells.

Adrenal Gland

The adrenal gland is another endocrine gland regulated by the pituitary. The adrenal cortex, the outer part of each of the two adrenal glands, produces aldosterone, cortisol, and other steroids. These substances regulate salt concentration in body fluids and glucose, fat, and protein metabolism. The inner portion of the gland, the adrenal medulla, secretes epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine, substances connected with the autonomic nervous system that help the body to respond to danger or stress.

The Thyroid Gland

The thyroid, located below the larynx and partially surrounding the trachea, produces thyroxine, which controls the metabolic rate of most body cells, and calcitonin, which is responsible for maintaining proper calcium serum levels in the body.

The Sex Hormones

The testes produce the male sex hormone testosterone, which controls the development of the male sex organs as well as secondary sex characteristics. The pituitary hormone LH regulates testosterone production, and FSH initiates sperm formation in the testes. In females, FSH, LH, and LTH are integrated into the complex monthly cycles of ovulation, production of the hormones estrogen and progesterone by the ovaries and corpus luteum, and menstruation; LTH also contributes to lactation. Estrogen controls growth of the sex organs and breasts and regulates secondary sex characteristics. The most important function of progesterone is to prepare the uterine lining for implantation of a fertilized egg.

Other Endocrine Glands

The other endocrine glands are not directly controlled by the pituitary. The four parathyroid glands, located behind the thyroid, secrete a hormone that regulates calcium and phosphate metabolism. The endocrine portion of the pancreas, called the islets of Langerhans, secretes insulin, which regulates the level of sugar (glucose) in the blood and glucagon, which raises blood sugar level. The thymus, sometimes considered another endocrine gland, processes lymphocytes in newborn animals, seeding the lymph nodes and other lymph tissues; it is partly responsible for the development of the organism's immune system (see immunity). The kidney is sometimes considered an endocrine gland because it secretes the hormone renin which, with other substances, regulates blood pressure. The kidney produces a glycoprotein called erythropoietin, which stimulates red blood cell production. The pineal gland produces a substance called melatonin, which helps regulate the body's internal clock.

The Hypothalamus

Physiological processes are under nervous system as well as endocrine control and a gland adjacent to the pituitary, called the hypothalamus, mediates between the two systems. The hypothalamus secretes pituitary-regulating substances in response to nervous system stimuli including smell, taste, pain, and emotions. Thus, stress, cold, heat, and other stimuli release CRF, or adrenocorticotropic hormone-releasing factor, from the hypothalamus, causing ACTH to be produced by the pituitary, which in turn stimulates the production of the adrenal hormone cortisol. Similar chemical regulatory mechanisms operate in the regulation of the sex and thyroid hormones. Hypothalamic activity is also regulated by other body substances, e.g., cortisol inhibits the production of hypothalamic CRF.
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Endocrine system (invertebrate)

The chemical integrating system in animals that lack a vertebral (spinal) column. An endocrine system consists of those glandular cells, tissues, and organs whose products (hormones) supplement the rapid, short-term coordinating functions of the nervous system. Almost all of the information about invertebrates pertains to the more highly evolved groups that will be discussed below, the annelids, echinoderms, mollusks, and most particularly two classes of arthropods, the insects and crustaceans. Several of the hormones in invertebrates are neurohormones, that is, they are produced by nerve cells. See Neurosecretion


Increase in linear dimensions of an insect can only occur at periodic intervals when the restricting exoskeleton is shed during a process known as molting. Once an insect becomes an adult, it ceases to molt. The orderly sequence of molts that leads from the newly hatched insect to the adult is controlled by three hormones. The brain produces a neurohormone which stimulates a pair of glands in the prothorax, the prothoracic glands, causing release of the molting hormone, ecdysone. A third hormone, the juvenile hormone, produced by a pair of glands near the brain, functions during the juvenile molts to suppress the differentiation of adult tissues. Juvenile hormone permits growth but prevents maturation. See Ecdysone

Two neurohormones with antagonistic actions are involved in regulating the water content of insects. One, the diuretic hormone, promotes water loss by increasing the volume of fluid secreted into the Malpighian tubules, the excretory organs. The second, the antidiuretic hormone, acts to conserve water by causing the wall of the rectum to increase the volume of water resorbed from its lumen while lowering the excretion rate from the Malpighian tubules.

Bursicon, a protein neurohormone, is responsible for the tanning and hardening of the newly formed cuticle. During the development of some insects, a period of arrested development occurs, termed the diapause. The mechanisms controlling the onset and the termination of diapause are largely unknown. However, in some insects there is evidence for a hormone, proctodone, that reinitiates development. A very few species of insects, most notably the stick insect (Carausius morosus), have the ability to change color. This insect becomes darker at night and lighter by day as a result of the rearrangement of pigment granules within the epidermal cells. Darkening is due to a hormone produced in the brain.


Higher crustaceans have a structure, the sinus gland, which in most stalk-eyed species lies in the eyestalk and is the storage and release site of a molt-inhibiting hormone. The Y-organs, a pair of structures found in the anterior portion of the body near the excretory organs, are the source of the crustacean molting hormone, crustecdysone. Chemically, crustecdysone is very similar to the ecdysone from insects; both substances can cause molting in crustaceans and insects. The sinus gland is a neuroendocrine structure, but the Y-organs are nonneural.

Crustacean pigment cells (chromatophores) are under hormonal control, as in insects. The active substances are released from the sinus glands and the postcommissural organs, which lie near the esophagus. Substances have been found that cause dispersion of the pigment within the chromatophore, as well as substances with the opposite action. See Chromatophore

The compound eye of crustaceans has three retinal pigments. The movements of these pigments with illumination level control the amount of light impinging on the photosensitive cells. A substance has been found that causes the migration of these pigments toward the light-adapted positions and another substance that causes migration toward dark-adapted positions.

The pericardial organs, which are found near the heart, are neuroendocrine organs that cause an increase in the amplitude of the heart beat. The sinus gland contains the hyperglycemic hormone, which causes a rise in blood glucose.


Strong evidence for hormones in annelids has been obtained from studies of the reproductive system. One substance that has been found in some marine annelids inhibits maturation of the gametes. This substance was thought to have been produced by the brain, but studies show that another structure, the infracerebral gland, which lies ventral to the brain, may be involved.


The radial nerves of starfishes contain two substances that are required for the maintenance of a normal reproductive cycle. One, the shedding substance, induces spawning. The second, shedhibin, inhibits the former.


The best-established endocrine organs in mollusks, the optic glands, occur in the octopus and squid. They are a pair of small structures, found near the brain, that produce a substance which causes gonadal maturation. The optic glands in turn are regulated by inhibitory nerves from the brain. There is also some evidence that a portion of the nervous system (the pleural ganglia) may secrete a hormone that affects water balance. Removal of the pleural ganglia from a freshwater snail results in swelling of the animal due to the influx of water.

Endocrine system (vertebrate)

A system of chemical communication among cells. The classical vertebrate endocrine system consists of a group of discrete glands that secrete unique products (hormones) into the bloodstream. These products travel in the blood to distant sites or targets where they cause specific physiological responses. Thus endocrine glands differ from exocrine glands, in that they lack ducts and deliver their secretions in the bloodstream. The classical definition of an endocrine system has become harder to apply with the discovery of scattered cells rather than discrete glands that act as endocrine organs, of endocrine cells that affect themselves (autocrine effect) or nearby targets (paracrine effect) by diffusion through extracellular fluids rather than the bloodstream, and of neurons that secrete hormones (neurosecretion). All of these mechanisms, however, allow for chemical intercellular communication and can be considered part of the endocrine system. See Neurosecretion

One important function of the endocrine system, along with the nervous system, is to maintain homeostasis, that is, a constancy of the internal environment of an organism. Thus an organism reacts and adjusts physiologically to changes in its external environment. The roles of the endocrine and nervous systems in maintaining homeostasis are many, complementary, and overlapping. See Homeostasis, Nervous system (vertebrate)

Nature of hormones

Hormones are the products of endocrine cells. They are either proteinlike or steroidal. Peptide hormones are produced by protein synthetic mechanisms directed by the genes of the endocrine cells. They are stored in endocrine cells in secretory granules that bud off the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi membranes, where protein synthesis occurs. The granules leave the cell by endocytosis and enter the bloodstream. Steroid hormones, on the other hand, are produced from cholesterol by a number of well-characterized, enzyme-catalyzed steps. Cholesterol is thus converted stepwise to various steroid families: the hormones of the adrenal cortex (cortisol and aldosterone), the estrogens (estradiol) from the ovary, and the androgens (testosterone) from the testis. Steroid hormones diffuse across the endocrine cell plasma membrane to enter the circulation. See Hormone, Protein, Steroid

Since in most cases the blood carries hormones throughout the body, there must be a system by which only certain tissues respond to each hormone. This is accomplished by receptors, which are binding sites either on the surface of the target cell or within its nucleus. Receptors are high-molecular-weight proteins; the structure of some, such as the insulin receptor, is known. In general, peptide hormones cannot cross the plasma membrane, so their receptors are located there, whereas steroid hormones do pass through the plasma membrane of their targets and bind to nuclear receptors, probably located in the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

In order for peptide hormones to stimulate physiological changes within the target cell, the “message” must be passed from the hormone-receptor complex of the plasma membrane to the interior of the cell. This process of signaling across the plasma membrane is accomplished by so-called second messengers of which the best known is adenosine 3,5-cyclic monophosphate (cyclic AMP). Steroid hormones, of course, have no need for second messengers since they are lipid-soluble and pass readily through the plasma membrane and into the cell. See Cell membranes, Second messengers

Once hormones are bound with their receptors and have stimulated their target cells, physiological responses occur. This may involve such biochemical processes as conversion of an inactive form of an enzyme into an active one, stimulation of critical enzymatic pathways, increase in transport of glucose or amino acids into cells, or synthesis of new proteins. These events may result in overall changes in cell or organ function, metabolism, growth, or even the behavior of the organism.

The endocrine system is regulated by control mechanisms, the means by which homeostasis is achieved. The most common relationship between the hormone and its target is one of negative feedback, whereby the response to the hormonal stimulus turns off the original stimulus. For example, the endocrine pancreatic beta cells produce insulin in response to high blood sugar levels. Insulin is released into the blood, where it causes its target cells to take up glucose, thus reducing blood sugar. When blood glucose concentration falls, the secretion of insulin is turned off. The system is turned back on when the blood glucose content gradually increases again. See Carbohydrate metabolism; Insulin

Pituitary gland and hypothalamus

The pituitary gland, or hypophysis, is located near the base of the brain. It secretes many hormones and controls the function of other endocrine glands. The production and release of the various pituitary hormones are regulated in turn by small peptide-releasing hormones from the hypothalamus of the brain. These factors are produced by neurosecretory neurons and travel to the adenohypophysis (anterior lobe of the pituitary) by way of a portal blood system. The releasing hormones stimulate specific cells of the adenohypophysis to produce and release their hormones. Generally speaking, each of the adenohypophysial hormones is affected by a separate releasing hormone. Thus, the hypothalamic thyrotropin-releasing hormone stimulates the synthesis and release of thyroid-stimulating hormone (thyrotropin) by the adenohypophysis. Other adenohypophysial hormones include adrenocorticotropic hormone, which stimulates the production of steroid hormones by the adrenal cortex; growth hormone, which stimulates protein synthesis and growth in many cells; prolactin, which stimulates the production of milk by the mammary glands and is important in many other functions; follicle-stimulating hormone, which induces growth of the follicles of the ovary prior to ovulation; and luteinizing hormone, which induces ovulation. The release of both follicle-stimulating and luteinizing hormones is governed by gonadotropin-releasing hormone.

Other hypothalamic hormones do not reach the pituitary by way of the bloodstream; instead they travel down the long axons of the neurosecretory cells into the neurohypophysis (posterior lobe of the pituitary). Oxytocin acts upon the mammary glands of female mammals to cause milk release in response to suckling by the young, and stimulates the uterus to contract at the end of pregnancy to aid in expulsion of the offspring. Vasopressin (or antidiuretic hormone) is important in water conservation by the kidney tubules and also produces an increase in blood pressure. See Pituitary gland

Thyroid gland

The thyroid gland lies in the neck region of mammals. It produces two closely related hormones, triiodothyronine and thyroxine. These both increase the metabolic rate of an organism, and increase enzyme activity and protein synthesis. The thyroid hormones act along with growth hormone to promote cell growth and development. Thyroid hormones are peptides but their three-dimensional structures may be similar to those of steroid hormones. Thus they are unusual in their ability to pass through the plasma membrane of their target cells and bind to nuclear receptors.

The control of hormone secretion by the thyroid (as well as by the adrenal cortex and gonads) involves more complex feedback relationships. These endocrine glands are affected by the levels of hormones from the adenohypophysis. In the case of the thyroid gland, thyrotropin-releasing factor from the hypothalamus stimulates the release of thyroid-stimulating hormone by the adenohypophysis. In response, the thyroid secretes thyroxine and triiodothyronine. High blood levels of the thyroid hormones inhibit the secretion of both thyrotropin-releasing factor (long-loop feedback) and thyroid-stimulating hormone (short-loop feedback). See Thyroid gland

Calcium regulation

The parathyroid glands derive their name from the fact that in mammals they are embedded within the thyroids. These small glands are essential for life, as they regulate the concentration of calcium ion in blood and other extracellular fluids. If calcium is too low, the animal goes into tetanic convulsions and dies, whereas if calcium is too high, abnormal calcification and stone formation can occur. Parathyroid hormone is a protein hormone that raises the blood calcium levels (hypercalcemia). The hormone acts upon bone to cause the release of calcium and phosphate, and upon the kidney to increase the reabsorption (conservation) of calcium and excretion of phosphate.

Vitamin D is now recognized as a steroidlike hormone, although it does not originate from an endocrine gland. It is synthesized from precursors present in the diet or produced after exposure of skin lipids to ultraviolet light. Vitamin D plays roles in calcium conservation by the kidney and in bone mineralization, but its most important function is to enhance calcium transport across intestinal cells and thus conserve dietary calcium. See Vitamin D

Calcitonin is a newly recognized peptide hormone produced by thyroid cells in mammals (different cells from those that produce thyroid hormones) and from the ultimobranchial glands of nonmammalian vertebrates. Calcitonin is hypocalcemic and acts by inhibiting calcium loss from bone. Of the three calcium-regulating hormones, it appears to be the least important. See Parathyroid gland

Carbohydrate regulation

Insulin and glucagon are peptide hormones produced by endocrine cells of the pancreatic islets. Insulin is produced by the pancreatic beta cells and is the only hormone that decreases blood sugar (glucose) levels. It acts on its target cells (skeletal muscle, fat cells) to increase the uptake of glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids. Once taken into cells, glucose is used in metabolic reactions or stored as glycogen, a large carbohydrate. Insulin also causes the conversion of amino acids to proteins and fatty acids to fats in the target cells. In the absence of insulin, as in diabetes mellitus, the target cells cannot take up glucose, and thus the body must utilize amino acids and fats as energy sources. These processes result in the accumulation of toxic metabolic products which eventually disrupt the acid-base balance, leading to coma and death.

Glucagon, in contrast, is a hyperglycemic hormone. It is a small peptide from the pancreatic islet alpha cells that acts upon liver cells to cause the conversion of glycogen to glucose by activation of key enzymes in a complex metabolic pathway.

Many other hormones elevate blood sugar levels. For example, epinephrine (adrenalin), an amino acid derivative from the adrenal medulla, acts by the same pathway as glucagon to convert glycogen to glucose, except that the targets of epinephrine are skeletal and heart muscle. Epinephrine is secreted in times of stress and serves to prepare the body for an emergency by increasing the availability of energy in the form of glucose and by increasing the heart rate and blood pressure.

Growth hormone, a large protein hormone from the adenohypophysis, is secreted in response to low blood sugar levels. This hormone elevates blood sugar by blocking the uptake of glucose by cells and by favoring the utilization of fats rather than glucose as an energy source.

Many of the adrenal cortical hormones, such as cortisol, are known collectively as glucocorticoids, because they also elevate blood glucose levels. These steroid hormones favor the production of glucose from proteins and fats rather than glycogen (gluconeogenesis). Glucocorticoids also exert an anti-inflammatory action, which makes them useful for treatment of arthritis and other diseases. See Adrenal gland

Salt and water regulation

Several hormones affect the ability of the kidney to conserve or excrete salts and water. The antidiuretic hormone (vasopressin) promotes water reabsorption by the kidney tubules, so that the organism excretes less water. The secretion of vasopressin is regulated by hypothalamic neuro-secretory neurons that are sensitive to the concentration of salts in the extracellular fluids. In the absence of vasopressin, an individual excretes great volumes of dilute urine, leading to severe dehydration (diabetes insipidus).

Salt excretion is regulated mainly by two hormones that act in opposition. Aldosterone is an adrenal cortical steroid that promotes the reabsorption of sodium by the kidney tubules and thus decreases its excretion in the urine. In contrast, atriopeptin (atrial natriuretic factor), a peptide that originates in heart muscle, acts upon the kidney to increase the excretion of sodium in the urine. See Osmoregulatory mechanisms

Reproductive hormones

Probably the best-studied endocrine glands are the gonads, the testes of the male and the ovaries of the female. The gonads are regulated by the follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone from the adenohypophysis. In the male, follicle-stimulating hormone stimulates the initiation of sperm formation by the testis tubules, and luteinizing hormone acts on the nearby Leydig cells of the testis to produce testosterone, the principal male sex hormone. Testosterone acts by a paracrine mechanism to cause the final maturation of sperm, and by way of the blood to stimulate development of the male reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics. See Testis

In the female, follicle-stimulating hormone stimulates the growth of the ovarian follicles at the beginning of each reproductive cycle. As the follicles grow, they produce estradiol. Increasing levels of estradiol cause feedback inhibition of gonadotropin-releasing hormone. High levels of estradiol also have an unusual positive feedback effect upon the hypothalamus and adenohypophysis to cause a surge in the secretion of luteinizing hormone, which results in ovulation. The corpus luteum, a remnant of the ovulated follicle, produces both estradiol and the second major female sex hormone, progesterone. Progesterone is necessary for the maintenance of a quiescent uterus during pregnancy, and both estrogen and progesterone are important in the regulation of the female reproductive cycle. Estradiol is also essential for the growth and maturation of the female reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics. In both males and females, the sex hormones affect reproductive behavior. See Ovary, Reproductive behavior

Other hormones

There are many other factors that act in various ways to achieve homeostasis or intercellular communication, such as a large number of peptides found in both gastrointestinal cells and the brain. These were recognized for many years as gastrointestinal hormones which aid in secretion of digestive juices and motility of the gastrointestinal tract. Their function in the brain appears to be different, and there is evidence that they act in pain reception or analgesia, as factors that stimulate or curb appetite, or in memory or other functions. This field of neuropeptide hormones is in its infancy and serves to emphasize the close relationship between the endocrine and nervous systems in intercellular communication.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Bioscience. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

endocrine system

[′en·də·krən ‚sis·təm]
The chemical coordinating system in animals, that is, the endocrine glands that produce hormones.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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