Ganong’s Review of Medical Physiology, 24th Edition

CHAPTER 17 Hypothalamic Regulation of Hormonal Functions


After reading this chapter you should be able to:

image Describe the anatomic connections between the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland and the functional significance of each connection.

image List the factors that control water intake, and outline the way in which they exert their effects.

image Describe the synthesis, processing, storage, and secretion of the hormones of the posterior pituitary.

image Discuss the effects of vasopressin, the receptors on which it acts, and how its secretion is regulated.

image Discuss the effects of oxytocin, the receptors on which it acts, and how its secretion is regulated.

image Name the hypophysiotropic hormones, and outline the effects that each has an anterior pituitary function.

image List the mechanisms by which heat is produced in and lost from the body, and comment on the differences in temperature in the hypothalamus, rectum, oral cavity, and skin.

image List the temperature-regulating mechanisms, and describe the way in which they are integrated under hypothalamic control to maintain normal body temperature.

image Discuss the pathophysiology of fever.


Many of the complex autonomic mechanisms that maintain the chemical constancy and temperature of the internal environment are integrated in the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus also functions with the limbic system as a unit that regulates emotional and instinctual behavior.


The hypothalamus (Figure 17–1) is the portion of the anterior end of the diencephalon that lies below the hypothalamic sulcus and in front of the interpeduncular nuclei. It is divided into a variety of nuclei and nuclear areas.


FIGURE 17–1 Human hypothalamus, with a superimposed diagrammatic representation of the portal hypophysial vessels.


The principal afferent and efferent neural pathways to and from the hypothalamus are mostly unmyelinated. Many connect the hypothalamus to the limbic system. Important connections also exist between the hypothalamus and nuclei in the midbrain tegmentum, pons, and hindbrain.

Norepinephrine-secreting neurons with their cell bodies in the hindbrain end in many different parts of the hypothalamus (see Figure 7–2). Paraventricular neurons that secrete oxytocin and vasopressin project in turn to the hindbrain and the spinal cord. Neurons that secrete epinephrine have their cell bodies in the hindbrain and end in the ventral hypothalamus.

An intrahypothalamic system is comprised of dopamine-secreting neurons that have their cell bodies in the arcuate nucleus and end on or near the capillaries that form the portal vessels in the median eminence. Serotonin-secreting neurons project to the hypothalamus from the raphe nuclei.


There are neural connections between the hypothalamus and the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland and vascular connections between the hypothalamus and the anterior lobe. Embryologically, the posterior pituitary arises as an evagination of the floor of the third ventricle. It is made up in large part of the endings of axons that arise from cell bodies in the supraoptic and paraventricular nuclei and pass to the posterior pituitary (Figure 17–2) via the hypothalamohypophysial tract. Most of the supraoptic fibers end in the posterior lobe itself, whereas some of the paraventricular fibers end in the median eminence. The anterior and intermediate lobes of the pituitary arise in the embryo from the Rathke pouch, an evagination from the roof of the pharynx (see Figure 18–1). Sympathetic nerve fibers reach the anterior lobe from its capsule, and parasympathetic fibers reach it from the petrosal nerves, but few if any nerve fibers pass to it from the hypothalamus. However, the portal hypophysial vessels form a direct vascular link between the hypothalamus and the anterior pituitary. Arterial twigs from the carotid arteries and circle of Willis form a network of fenestrated capillaries called the primary plexus on the ventral surface of the hypothalamus (Figure 17–1). Capillary loops also penetrate the median eminence. The capillaries drain into the sinusoidal portal hypophysial vessels that carry blood down the pituitary stalk to the capillaries of the anterior pituitary. This system begins and ends in capillaries without going through the heart and is therefore a true portal system. In birds and some mammals, including humans, there is no other anterior hypophysial arterial supply other than capsular vessels and anastomotic connections from the capillaries of the posterior pituitary. The median eminence is generally defined as the portion of the ventral hypothalamus from which the portal vessels arise. This region is outside the blood–brain barrier (see Chapter 33).


FIGURE 17–2 Secretion of hypothalamic hormones. The hormones of the posterior lobe (PL) are released into the general circulation from the endings of supraoptic and paraventricular neurons, whereas hypophysiotropic hormones are secreted into the portal hypophysial circulation from the endings of arcuate and other hypothalamic neurons. AL, anterior lobe; MB, mamillary bodies; OC, optic chiasm.


The major functions of the hypothalamus are summarized in Table 17–1. Some are fairly clear-cut visceral reflexes, and others include complex behavioral and emotional reactions; however, all involve a particular response to a particular stimulus. It is important to keep this in mind in considering hypothalamic function.



TABLE 17–1. Summary of principal hypothalamic regulatory mechanisms.


Many years ago, Sherrington called the hypothalamus “the head ganglion of the autonomic system.” Stimulation of the hypothalamus produces autonomic responses, but the hypothalamus does not seem to be concerned with the regulation of visceral function per se. Rather, the autonomic responses triggered in the hypothalamus are part of more complex phenomena such as eating, and emotions such as rage. For example, stimulation of various parts of the hypothalamus, especially the lateral areas, produces diffuse sympathetic discharge and increased adrenal medullary secretion—the mass sympathetic discharge seen in animals exposed to stress (the flight or fight reaction; see Chapter 13).

It has been claimed that separate hypothalamic areas control epinephrine and norepinephrine secretion. Differential secretion of one or the other of these adrenal medullary catecholamines does occur in certain situations (see Chapter 20), but the selective increases are small.

Body weight depends on the balance between caloric intake and utilization of calories. Obesity results when the former exceeds the latter. The hypothalamus and related parts of the brain play a key role in the regulation of food intake. Obesity is considered in detail in Chapter 26, and the relation of obesity to diabetes mellitus is discussed in Chapter 24.

Hypothalamic regulation of sleep and circadian rhythms are discussed in Chapter 14.


Another appetitive mechanism under hypothalamic control is thirst. Drinking is regulated by plasma osmolality and extracellular fluid (ECF) volume in much the same fashion as vasopressin secretion (see Chapter 38). Water intake is increased by increased effective osmotic pressure of the plasma (Figure 17–3), by decreases in ECF volume, and by psychologic and other factors. Osmolality acts via osmoreceptors, receptors that sense the osmolality of the body fluids. These osmoreceptors are located in the anterior hypothalamus.


FIGURE 17–3 Relation of plasma osmolality to thirst in healthy adult humans during infusion of hypertonic saline. The intensity of thirst is measured on a special analog scale. (Reproduced with permission from Thompson CJ et al: The osmotic thresholds for thirst and vasopressin release are similar in healthy humans. Clin Sci Lond 1986;71:651.)

Decreases in ECF volume also stimulate thirst by a pathway independent of that mediating thirst in response to increased plasma osmolality (Figure 17–4). Thus, hemorrhage causes increased drinking even if there is no change in the osmolality of the plasma. The effect of ECF volume depletion on thirst is mediated in part via the renin–angiotensin system (see Chapter 38). Renin secretion is increased by hypovolemia and results in an increase in circulating angiotensin II. The angiotensin II acts on the subfornical organ, a specialized receptor area in the diencephalon (see Figure 33–7), to stimulate the neural areas concerned with thirst. Some evidence suggests that it acts on the organum vasculosum of the lamina terminalis (OVLT) as well. These areas are highly permeable and are two of the circumventricular organs located outside the blood–brain barrier (see Chapter 33). However, drugs that block the action of angiotensin II do not completely block the thirst response to hypovolemia, and it appears that the baroreceptors in the heart and blood vessels are also involved.


FIGURE 17–4 Diagrammatic representation of the way in which changes in plasma osmolality and changes in ECF volume affect thirst by separate pathways.

The intake of liquids is increased during eating (prandial drinking). The increase has been called a learned or habit response, but it has not been investigated in detail. One factor is an increase in plasma osmolality that occurs as food is absorbed. Another may be an action of one or more gastrointestinal hormones on the hypothalamus.

When the sensation of thirst is obtunded, either by direct damage to the diencephalon or by depressed or altered states of consciousness, patients stop drinking adequate amounts of fluid. Dehydration results if appropriate measures are not instituted to maintain water balance. If the protein intake is high, the products of protein metabolism cause an osmotic diuresis (see Chapter 38), and the amounts of water required to maintain hydration are large. Most cases of hypernatremia are actually due to simple dehydration in patients with psychoses or hypothalamic disease who do not or cannot increase their water intake when their thirst mechanism is stimulated. Lesions of the anterior communicating artery can also obtund thirst because branches of this artery supply the hypothalamic areas concerned with thirst.


A number of other well-established factors contribute to the regulation of water intake. Psychologic and social factors are important. Dryness of the pharyngeal mucous membrane causes a sensation of thirst. Patients in whom fluid intake must be restricted sometimes get appreciable relief of thirst by sucking ice chips or a wet cloth.

Dehydrated dogs, cats, camels, and some other animals rapidly drink just enough water to make up their water deficit. They stop drinking before the water is absorbed (while their plasma is still hypertonic), so some kind of pharyngeal gastrointestinal “metering” must be involved. Some evidence suggests that humans have a similar metering ability, though it is not well developed.



In most mammals, the hormones secreted by the posterior pituitary gland are arginine vasopressin (AVP) and oxytocin. In hippopotami and most pigs, arginine in the vasopressin molecule is replaced by lysine to form lysine vasopressin. The posterior pituitaries of some species of pigs and marsupials contain a mixture of arginine and lysine vasopressin. The posterior lobe hormones are nanopeptides with a disulfide ring at one end (Figure 17–5).


FIGURE 17–5 Arginine vasopressin and oxytocin.


The hormones of the posterior pituitary gland are synthesized in the cell bodies of the magnocellular neurons in the supraoptic and paraventricular nuclei and transported down the axons of these neurons to their endings in the posterior lobe, where they are secreted in response to electrical activity in the endings. Some of the neurons make oxytocin and others make vasopressin, and oxytocin-containing and vasopressin-containing cells are found in both nuclei.

Oxytocin and vasopressin are typical neural hormones, that is, hormones secreted into the circulation by nerve cells. This type of neural regulation is compared with other types in Figure 17–6. The term neurosecretion was originally coined to describe the secretion of hormones by neurons, but the term is somewhat misleading because it appears that all neurons secrete chemical messengers (see Chapter 7).


FIGURE 17–6 Neural control mechanisms. In the two situations on the left, neurotransmitters act at nerve endings on muscle; in the two in the middle, neurotransmitters regulate the secretion of endocrine glands; and in the two on the right, neurons secrete hormones into the hypophysial portal or general circulation.

Like other peptide hormones, the posterior lobe hormones are synthesized as part of larger precursor molecules. Vasopressin and oxytocin each have a characteristic neurophysin associated with them in the granules in the neurons that secrete them—neurophysin I in the case of oxytocin and neurophysin II in the case of vasopressin. The neurophysins were originally thought to be binding polypeptides, but it now appears that they are simply parts of the precursor molecules. The precursor for AVP, prepropressophysin, contains a 19-amino-acid residue leader sequence followed by AVP, neurophysin II, and a glycopeptide (Figure 17–7). Prepro-oxyphysin, the precursor for oxytocin, is a similar but smaller molecule that lacks the glycopeptide.


FIGURE 17–7 Structure of bovine prepropressophysin (left) and prepro-oxyphysin (right). Gly in the 10 position of both peptides is necessary for amidation of the Gly residue in position 9. aa, amino acid residues. (Reproduced with permission from Richter D: Molecular events in expression of vasopressin and oxytocin and their cognate receptors. Am J Physiol 1988;255:F207.)

The precursor molecules are synthesized in the ribosomes of the cell bodies of the neurons. They have their leader sequences removed in the endoplasmic reticulum, are packaged into secretory granules in the Golgi apparatus, and are transported down the axons by axoplasmic flow to the endings in the posterior pituitary. The secretory granules, called Herring bodies, are easy to stain in tissue sections, and they have been extensively studied. Cleavage of the precursor molecules occurs as they are being transported, and the storage granules in the endings contain free vasopressin or oxytocin and the corresponding neurophysin. In the case of vasopressin, the glycopeptide is also present. All these products are secreted, but the functions of the components other than the established posterior pituitary hormones are unknown. Physiological control of vasopressin secretion is described in detail in Chapter 38.


The oxytocin-secreting and vasopressin-secreting neurons also generate and conduct action potentials, and action potentials reaching their endings trigger the release of hormones by Ca2+-dependent exocytosis. At least in anesthetized rats, these neurons are silent at rest or discharge at low, irregular rates (0.1–3 spikes/s). However, their response to stimulation varies (Figure 17–8). Stimulation of the nipples causes a synchronous, high-frequency discharge of the oxytocin neurons after an appreciable latency. This discharge causes release of a pulse of oxytocin and consequent milk ejection in postpartum females. On the other hand, stimulation of vasopressin-secreting neurons by a stimulus such as an increase in blood osmolality during dehydration, or loss of blood volume due to hemorrhage, causes an initial steady increase in firing rate followed by a prolonged pattern of phasic discharge in which periods of high-frequency discharge alternate with periods of electrical quiescence (phasic bursting). These phasic bursts are generally not synchronous in different vasopressin-secreting neurons. They are well suited to maintain a prolonged increase in the output of vasopressin, as opposed to the synchronous, relatively short, high-frequency discharge of oxytocin-secreting neurons in response to stimulation of the nipples.


FIGURE 17–8 Responses of magnocellular neurons to stimulation. The tracings show individual extracellularly recorded action potentials, discharge rates, and intramammary duct pressure. A) Response of an oxytocin-secreting neuron. HFD, high-frequency discharge; ME, milk ejection. Stimulation of nipples started before the onset of recording. B) Responses of a vasopressin-secreting neuron, showing no change in the slow firing rate in response to stimulation of nipples and a prompt increase in the firing rate when 5 mL of blood was drawn, followed by typical phasic discharge. (Modified from Wakerly JB: Hypothalamic neurosecretory function: Insights from electrophysiological studies of the magno-cellular nuclei. IBRO News 1985;4:15.)


Vasopressin-secreting neurons are found in the suprachiasmatic nuclei, and vasopressin and oxytocin are also found in the endings of neurons that project from the paraventricular nuclei to the brain stem and spinal cord. These neurons appear to be involved in cardiovascular control. In addition, vasopressin and oxytocin are synthesized in the gonads and the adrenal cortex, and oxytocin is present in the thymus. The functions of the peptides in these organs are unsettled.

Vasopressin Receptors

There are at least three kinds of vasopressin receptors: V1A, V1B, and V2. All are G protein-coupled. The V1A and V1B receptors act through phosphatidylinositol hydrolysis to increase intracellular Ca2+ concentrations. The V2receptors act through Gs to increase cAMP levels.

Effects of Vasopressin

Because one of its principal physiologic effects is the retention of water by the kidney, vasopressin is often called the antidiuretic hormone (ADH). It increases the permeability of the collecting ducts of the kidney so that water enters the hypertonic interstitium of the renal pyramids (see Chapter 37). The urine becomes concentrated and its volume decreases. The overall effect is therefore retention of water in excess of solute; consequently, the effective osmotic pressure of the body fluids is decreased. In the absence of vasopressin, the urine is hypotonic to plasma, urine volume is increased, and there is a net water loss. Consequently, the osmolality of the body fluid rises.

Effects of Oxytocin

In humans, oxytocin acts primarily on the breasts and uterus, though it appears to be involved in luteolysis as well (see Chapter 22). A G protein-coupled oxytocin receptor has been identified in human myometrium, and a similar or identical receptor is found in mammary tissue and the ovary. It triggers increases in intracellular Ca2+ levels.

The Milk Ejection Reflex

Oxytocin causes contraction of the myoepithelial cells that line the ducts of the breast. This squeezes the milk out of the alveoli of the lactating breast into the large ducts (sinuses) and thence out of the nipple (milk ejection). Many hormones acting in concert are responsible for breast growth and the secretion of milk into the ducts (see Chapter 22), but milk ejection in most species requires oxytocin.

Milk ejection is normally initiated by a neuroendocrine reflex. The receptors involved are touch receptors, which are plentiful in the breast—especially around the nipple. Impulses generated in these receptors are relayed from the somatic touch pathways to the supraoptic and paraventricular nuclei. Discharge of the oxytocin-containing neurons causes secretion of oxytocin from the posterior pituitary (Figure 17–8). The suckling of an infant at the breast stimulates the touch receptors, the nuclei are stimulated, oxytocin is released, and the milk is expressed into the sinuses, ready to flow into the mouth of the waiting infant. In lactating women, genital stimulation and emotional stimuli also produce oxytocin secretion, sometimes causing milk to spurt from the breasts.

Other Actions of Oxytocin

Oxytocin causes contraction of the smooth muscle of the uterus. The sensitivity of the uterine musculature to oxytocin is enhanced by estrogen and inhibited by progesterone. The inhibitory effect of progesterone is due to a direct action of the steroid on uterine oxytocin receptors. In late pregnancy, the uterus becomes very sensitive to oxytocin coincident with a marked increase in the number of oxytocin receptors and oxytocin receptor mRNA (see Chapter 22). Oxytocin secretion is then increased during labor. After dilation of the cervix, descent of the fetus down the birth canal initiates impulses in the afferent nerves that are relayed to the supraoptic and paraventricular nuclei, causing secretion of sufficient oxytocin to enhance labor (Figure 22–24). The amount of oxytocin in plasma is normal at the onset of labor. It is possible that the marked increase in oxytocin receptors at this time allows normal oxytocin levels to initiate contractions, setting up a positive feedback. However, the amount of oxytocin in the uterus is also increased, and locally produced oxytocin may also play a role.

Oxytocin may also act on the nonpregnant uterus to facilitate sperm transport. The passage of sperm up the female genital tract to the uterine tubes, where fertilization normally takes place, depends not only on the motile powers of the sperm but also, at least in some species, on uterine contractions. The genital stimulation involved in coitus releases oxytocin, but whether oxytocin initiates the rather specialized uterine contractions that transport the sperm is as yet unproven. The secretion of oxytocin is also increased by stressful stimuli and, like that of vasopressin, is inhibited by alcohol.

Circulating oxytocin increases at the time of ejaculation in males, and it is possible that this causes increased contraction of the smooth muscle of the vas deferens, propelling sperm toward the urethra.



The anterior pituitary secretes six hormones: adrenocorticotropic hormone (corticotropin, ACTH), thyroid-stimulating hormone (thyrotropin, TSH), growth hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), and prolactin (PRL). An additional polypeptide, β-lipotropin (β-LPH), is secreted with ACTH, but its physiologic role is unknown. The actions of the anterior pituitary hormones are summarized in Figure 17–9. The hormones are discussed in detail in subsequent chapters. The hypothalamus plays an important stimulatory role in regulating the secretion of ACTH, β-LPH, TSH, growth hormone, FSH, and LH. It also regulates prolactin secretion, but its effect is predominantly inhibitory rather than stimulatory.


FIGURE 17–9 Anterior pituitary hormones. In women, FSH and LH act in sequence on the ovary to produce growth of the ovarian follicle, ovulation, and formation and maintenance of the corpus luteum. Prolactin stimulates lactation. In men, FSH and LH control the functions of the testes.


Anterior pituitary secretion is controlled by chemical agents carried in the portal hypophysial vessels from the hypothalamus to the pituitary. These substances used to be called releasing and inhibiting factors, but now they are commonly called hypophysiotropic hormones. The latter term seems appropriate since they are secreted into the bloodstream and act at a distance from their site of origin. Small amounts escape into the general circulation, but they are at their highest concentration in portal hypophysial blood.


There are six established hypothalamic releasing and inhibiting hormones (Figure 17–10): corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH)thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH)growth hormone-releasing hormone (GRH)growth hormone-inhibiting hormone (GIH, now generally called somatostatin)luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH, now generally known as gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH)); and prolactin-inhibiting hormone (PIH). In addition, hypothalamic extracts contain prolactin-releasing activity, and a prolactin-releasing hormone (PRH) has been postulated to exist. TRH, VIP, and several other polypeptides found in the hypothalamus stimulate prolactin secretion, but it is uncertain whether one or more of these peptides is the physiologic PRH. Recently, an orphan receptor was isolated from the anterior pituitary, and the search for its ligand led to the isolation of a 31-amino-acid polypeptide from the human hypothalamus. This polypeptide stimulated prolactin secretion by an action on the anterior pituitary receptor, but additional research is needed to determine if it is the physiologic PRH. GnRH stimulates the secretion of FSH as well as that of LH, and it seems unlikely that a separate FSH-releasing hormone exists.


FIGURE 17–10 Effects of hypophysiotropic hormones on the secretion of anterior pituitary hormones.

The structures of the six established hypophysiotropic hormones are shown in Figure 17–11. The structures of the genes and preprohormones for TRH, GnRH, somatostatin, CRH, and GRH are known. PreproTRH contains six copies of TRH. Several other preprohormones may contain other hormonally active peptides in addition to the hypophysiotropic hormones.


FIGURE 17–11 Structure of hypophysiotropic hormones in humans. Preprosomatostatin is processed to a tetradecapeptide (somatostatin 14, [SS14], shown above) and also to a polypeptide containing 28 amino acid residues (SS28).

The area from which the hypothalamic releasing and inhibiting hormones are secreted is the median eminence of the hypothalamus. This region contains few nerve cell bodies, but many nerve endings are in close proximity to the capillary loops from which the portal vessels originate.

The locations of the cell bodies of the neurons that project to the external layer of the median eminence and secrete the hypophysiotropic hormones are shown in Figure 17–12, which also shows the location of the neurons secreting oxytocin and vasopressin. The GnRH-secreting neurons are primarily in the medial preoptic area, the somatostatin-secreting neurons are in the periventricular nuclei, the TRH-secreting and CRH-secreting neurons are in the medial parts of the paraventricular nuclei, and the GRH-secreting (and dopamine-secreting) neurons are in the arcuate nuclei.


FIGURE 17–12 Location of cell bodies of hypophysiotropic hormone-secreting neurons projected on a ventral view of the hypothalamus and pituitary of the rat. AL, anterior lobe; ARC, arcuate nucleus; BA, basilar artery; DA, dopamine; IC, internal carotid artery; IL, intermediate lobe; MC, middle cerebral artery; ME, median eminence; PC, posterior cerebral artery; Peri, periventricular nucleus; PL, posterior lobe; PV, paraventricular nucleus; SO, supraoptic nucleus. The names of the hormones are enclosed in boxes. (Courtesy of LW Swanson and ET Cunningham Jr)

Most, if not all, of the hypophysiotropic hormones affect the secretion of more than one anterior pituitary hormone (Figure 17–10). The FSH-stimulating activity of GnRH has been mentioned previously. TRH stimulates the secretion of prolactin as well as TSH. Somatostatin inhibits the secretion of TSH as well as growth hormone. It does not normally inhibit the secretion of the other anterior pituitary hormones, but it inhibits the abnormally elevated secretion of ACTH in patients with Nelson’s syndrome. CRH stimulates the secretion of ACTH and β-LPH.

Hypophysiotropic hormones function as neurotransmitters in other parts of the brain, the retina, and the autonomic nervous system (see Chapter 7). In addition, somatostatin is found in the pancreatic islets (see Chapter 24), GRH is secreted by pancreatic tumors, and somatostatin and TRH are found in the gastrointestinal tract (see Chapter 25).

Receptors for most of the hypophysiotropic hormones are coupled to G proteins. There are two human CRH receptors: hCRH-RI and hCRH-RII. The physiologic role of hCRH-RII is unsettled, though it is found in many parts of the brain. In addition, a CRH-binding protein in the peripheral circulation inactivates CRH. It is also found in the cytoplasm of corticotropes in the anterior pituitary, and in this location it might play a role in receptor internalization. However, the exact physiologic role of this protein is unknown. Other hypophysiotropic hormones do not have known binding proteins.


Research delineating the multiple neuroendocrine regulatory functions of the hypothalamus is important because it helps explain how endocrine secretion is matched to the demands of a changing environment. The nervous system receives information about changes in the internal and external environment from the sense organs. It brings about adjustments to these changes through effector mechanisms that include not only somatic movement but also changes in the rate at which hormones are secreted.

The manifestations of hypothalamic disease are neurologic defects, endocrine changes, and metabolic abnormalities such as hyperphagia and hyperthermia. The relative frequencies of the signs and symptoms of hypothalamic disease in one large series of cases are shown in Table 17–2. The possibility of hypothalamic pathology should be kept in mind in evaluating all patients with pituitary dysfunction, especially those with isolated deficiencies of single pituitary tropic hormones.


TABLE 17–2 Symptoms and signs in 60 patients with hypothalamic disease.

A condition of considerable interest in this context is Kallmann syndrome, the combination of hypogonadism due to low levels of circulating gonadotropins (hypogonadotropic hypogonadism) with partial or complete loss of the sense of smell (hyposmia or anosmia). Embryologically, GnRH neurons develop in the nose and migrate up the olfactory nerves and then through the brain to the hypothalamus. If this migration is prevented by congenital abnormalities in the olfactory pathways, the GnRH neurons do not reach the hypothalamus and pubertal maturation of the gonads does not occur. The syndrome is most common in men, and the cause in many cases is mutation of the KALIG1 gene, a gene on the X chromosome that codes for an adhesion molecule necessary for the normal development of the olfactory nerve. However, the condition also occurs in women and can be due to other genetic abnormalities.


In the body, heat is produced by muscular exercise, assimilation of food, and all the vital processes that contribute to the basal metabolic rate. It is lost from the body by radiation, conduction, and vaporization of water in the respiratory passages and on the skin. Small amounts of heat are also removed in the urine and feces. The balance between heat production and heat loss determines the body temperature. Because the speed of chemical reactions varies with temperature and because the enzyme systems of the body have narrow temperature ranges in which their function is optimal, normal body function depends on a relatively constant body temperature.

Invertebrates generally cannot adjust their body temperatures and so are at the mercy of the environment. In vertebrates, mechanisms for maintaining body temperature by adjusting heat production and heat loss have evolved. In reptiles, amphibians, and fish, the adjusting mechanisms are relatively rudimentary, and these species are called “cold-blooded” (poikilothermic) because their body temperature fluctuates over a considerable range. In birds and mammals, the “warm-blooded” (homeothermic) animals, a group of reflex responses that are primarily integrated in the hypothalamus operate to maintain body temperature within a narrow range in spite of wide fluctuations in environmental temperature. The hibernating mammals are a partial exception. While awake they are homeothermic, but during hibernation their body temperature falls.


In homeothermic animals, the actual temperature at which the body is maintained varies from species to species and, to a lesser degree, from individual to individual. In humans, the traditional normal value for the oral temperature is 37°C (98.6°F), but in one large series of normal young adults, the morning oral temperature averaged 36.7°C, with a standard deviation of 0.2°C. Therefore, 95% of all young adults would be expected to have a morning oral temperature of 36.3–37.1°C (97.3–98.8°F; mean ± 1.96 standard deviations). Various parts of the body are at different temperatures, and the magnitude of the temperature difference between the parts varies with the environmental temperature (Figure 17–13). The extremities are generally cooler than the rest of the body. The temperature of the scrotum is carefully regulated at 32°C. The rectal temperature is representative of the temperature at the core of the body and varies least with changes in environmental temperature. The oral temperature is normally 0.5°C lower than the rectal temperature, but it is affected by many factors, including ingestion of hot or cold fluids, gum chewing, smoking, and mouth breathing.


FIGURE 17–13 Temperatures of various parts of the body of a naked subject at various ambient temperatures in a calorimeter. (Redrawn and reproduced, with permission, from Hardy JD, DuBois EF: Basal heat production and elimination of thirteen normal women at temperatures from 22 degrees C. to 35 degrees C. J Nutr 1938 Oct; 48(2):257-293.)

The normal human core temperature undergoes a regular circadian fluctuation of 0.5–0.7°C. In individuals who sleep at night and are awake during the day (even when hospitalized at bed rest), it is lowest at about 6:00 AM and highest in the evenings (Figure 17–14). It is lowest during sleep, is slightly higher in the awake but relaxed state, and rises with activity. In women, an additional monthly cycle of temperature variation is characterized by a rise in basal temperature at the time of ovulation (Figure 22–15). Temperature regulation is less precise in young children and they may normally have a temperature that is 0.5°C or so above the established norm for adults.


FIGURE 17–14 Typical temperature chart of a hospitalized patient who does not have a febrile disease. Note the slight rise in temperature, due to excitement and apprehension, at the time of admission to the hospital, and the regular circadian temperature cycle.

During exercise, the heat produced by muscular contraction accumulates in the body and the rectal temperature normally rises as high as 40°C (104 °F). This rise is due in part to the inability of the heat-dissipating mechanisms to handle the greatly increased amount of heat produced, but evidence suggests that during exercise in addition there is an elevation of the body temperature at which the heat-dissipating mechanisms are activated. Body temperature also rises slightly during emotional excitement, probably owing to unconscious tensing of the muscles. It is chronically elevated by as much as 0.5°C when the metabolic rate is high, as in hyperthyroidism, and lowered when the metabolic rate is low, as in hypothyroidism (Figure 17–14). Some apparently normal adults chronically have a temperature above the normal range (constitutional hyperthermia).


A variety of basic chemical reactions contribute to body heat production at all times. Ingestion of food increases heat production, but the major source of heat is the contraction of skeletal muscle (Table 17–3). Heat production can be varied by endocrine mechanisms in the absence of food intake or muscular exertion. Epinephrine and norepinephrine produce a rapid but short-lived increase in heat production; thyroid hormones produce a slowly developing but prolonged increase. Furthermore, sympathetic discharge decreases during fasting and is increased by feeding.


TABLE 17–3 Body heat production and heat loss.

A source of considerable heat, particularly in infants, is brown fat. This fat has a high rate of metabolism and its thermogenic function has been likened to that of an electric blanket.


The processes by which heat is lost from the body when the environmental temperature is below body temperature are listed in Table 17–3Conduction is heat exchange between objects or substances at different temperatures that are in contact with one another. A basic characteristic of matter is that its molecules are in motion, with the amount of motion proportional to the temperature. These molecules collide with the molecules in cooler objects, transferring thermal energy to them. The amount of heat transferred is proportional to the temperature difference between the objects in contact (thermal gradient). Conduction is aided by convection, the movement of molecules away from the area of contact. Thus, for example, an object in contact with air at a different temperature changes the specific gravity of the air, and because warm air rises and cool air falls, a new supply of air is brought into contact with the object. Of course, convection is greatly aided if the object moves about in the medium or the medium moves past the object, for example, if a subject swims through water or a fan blows air through a room. Radiation is the transfer of heat by infrared electromagnetic radiation from one object to another at a different temperature with which it is not in contact. When an individual is in a cold environment, heat is lost by conduction to the surrounding air and by radiation to cool objects in the vicinity. Conversely, of course, heat is transferred to an individual and the heat load is increased by these processes when the environmental temperature is above body temperature. Note that because of radiation, an individual can feel chilly in a room with cold walls even though the room is relatively warm. On a cold but sunny day, the heat of the sun reflected off bright objects exerts an appreciable warming effect. It is the heat reflected from the snow, for example, that in part makes it possible to ski in fairly light clothes even though the air temperature is below freezing.

Because conduction occurs from the surface of one object to the surface of another, the temperature of the skin determines to a large extent the degree to which body heat is lost or gained. The amount of heat reaching the skin from the deep tissues can be varied by changing the blood flow to the skin. When the cutaneous vessels are dilated, warm blood wells into the skin, whereas in the maximally vasoconstricted state, heat is held centrally in the body. The rate at which heat is transferred from the deep tissues to the skin is called the tissue conductance. Further, birds have a layer of feathers next to the skin, and most mammals have a significant layer of hair or fur. Heat is conducted from the skin to the air trapped in this layer and from the trapped air to the exterior. When the thickness of the trapped layer is increased by fluffing the feathers or erection of the hairs (horripilation), heat transfer across the layer is reduced and heat losses (or, in a hot environment, heat gains) are decreased. “Goose pimples” are the result of horripilation in humans; they are the visible manifestation of cold-induced contraction of the piloerector muscles attached to the rather meager hair supply. Humans usually supplement this layer of hair with one or more layers of clothes. Heat is conducted from the skin to the layer of air trapped by the clothes, from the inside of the clothes to the outside, and from the outside of the clothes to the exterior. The magnitude of the heat transfer across the clothing, a function of its texture and thickness, is the most important determinant of how warm or cool the clothes feel, but other factors, especially the size of the trapped layer of warm air, are also important. Dark clothes absorb radiated heat and light-colored clothes reflect it back to the exterior.

The other major process transferring heat from the body in humans and other animals that sweat is vaporization of water on the skin and mucous membranes of the mouth and respiratory passages. Vaporization of 1 g of water removes about 0.6 kcal of heat. A certain amount of water is vaporized at all times. This insensible water loss amounts to 50 mL/h in humans. When sweat secretion is increased, the degree to which the sweat vaporizes depends on the humidity of the environment. It is common knowledge that one feels hotter on a humid day. This is due in part to the decreased vaporization of sweat, but even under conditions in which vaporization of sweat is complete, an individual in a humid environment feels warmer than an individual in a dry environment. The reason for this difference is unknown, but it seems related to the fact that in the humid environment sweat spreads over a greater area of skin before it evaporates. During muscular exertion in a hot environment, sweat secretion reaches values as high as 1600 mL/h, and in a dry atmosphere, most of this sweat is vaporized. Heat loss by vaporization of water therefore varies from 30 to over 900 kcal/h.

Some mammals lose heat by panting. This rapid, shallow breathing greatly increases the amount of water vaporization in the mouth and respiratory passages and therefore the amount of heat lost. Because the breathing is shallow, it produces relatively little change in the composition of alveolar air (see Chapter 34).

The relative contribution of each of the processes that transfer heat away from the body (Table 17–3) varies with the environmental temperature. At 21°C, vaporization is a minor component in humans at rest. As the environmental temperature approaches body temperature, radiation losses decline and vaporization losses increase.


The reflex and semireflex thermoregulatory responses in humans are listed in Table 17–4. They include autonomic, somatic, endocrine, and behavioral changes. One group of responses increases heat loss and decreases heat production; the other decreases heat loss and increases heat production. In general, exposure to heat stimulates the former group of responses and inhibits the latter, whereas exposure to cold does the opposite.


TABLE 17–4 Temperature-regulating mechanisms.

Curling up “in a ball” is a common reaction to cold in animals and has a counterpart in the position some people assume on climbing into a cold bed. Curling up decreases the body surface exposed to the environment. Shivering is an involuntary response of the skeletal muscles, but cold also causes a semiconscious general increase in motor activity. Examples include foot stamping and dancing up and down on a cold day. Increased catecholamine secretion is an important endocrine response to cold. Mice unable to make norepinephrine and epinephrine because their dopamine β-hydroxylase gene is knocked out do not tolerate cold; they have deficient vasoconstriction and are unable to increase thermogenesis in brown adipose tissue through UCP 1. TSH secretion is increased by cold and decreased by heat in laboratory animals, but the change in TSH secretion produced by cold in adult humans is small and of questionable significance. It is common knowledge that activity is decreased in hot weather—the “it’s too hot to move” reaction.

Thermoregulatory adjustments involve local responses as well as more general reflex responses. When cutaneous blood vessels are cooled they become more sensitive to catecholamines and the arterioles and venules constrict. This local effect of cold directs blood away from the skin. Another heat-conserving mechanism that is important in animals living in cold water is heat transfer from arterial to venous blood in the limbs. The deep veins (venae comitantes) run alongside the arteries supplying the limbs and heat is transferred from the warm arterial blood going to the limbs to the cold venous blood coming from the extremities (countercurrent exchange; see Chapter 37). This limits the ability to maintain heat in the tips of the extremities but conserves body heat.

The reflex responses activated by cold are controlled from the posterior hypothalamus. Those activated by warmth are controlled primarily from the anterior hypothalamus, although some thermoregulation against heat still occurs after decerebration at the level of the rostral midbrain. Stimulation of the anterior hypothalamus causes cutaneous vasodilation and sweating, and lesions in this region cause hyperthermia, with rectal temperatures sometimes reaching 43°C (109.4°F). Posterior hypothalamic stimulation causes shivering, and the body temperature of animals with posterior hypothalamic lesions falls toward that of the environment.


The hypothalamus is said to integrate body temperature information from sensory receptors (primarily cold receptors) in the skin, deep tissues, spinal cord, extrahypothalamic portions of the brain, and the hypothalamus itself. Each of these five inputs contributes about 20% of the information that is integrated. There are threshold core temperatures for each of the main temperature-regulating responses and when the threshold is reached the response begins. The threshold is 37°C for sweating and vasodilation, 36.8°C for vasoconstriction, 36°C for nonshivering thermogenesis, and 35.5°C for shivering.


Fever is perhaps the oldest and most universally known hallmark of disease. It occurs not only in mammals but also in birds, reptiles, amphibia, and fish. When it occurs in homeothermic animals, the thermoregulatory mechanisms behave as if they were adjusted to maintain body temperature at a higher than normal level, that is, “as if the thermostat had been reset” to a new point above 37°C. The temperature receptors then signal that the actual temperature is below the new set point, and the temperature-raising mechanisms are activated. This usually produces chilly sensations due to cutaneous vasoconstriction and occasionally enough shivering to produce a shaking chill. However, the nature of the response depends on the ambient temperature. The temperature rise in experimental animals injected with a pyrogen is due mostly to increased heat production if they are in a cold environment and mostly to decreased heat loss if they are in a warm environment.

The pathogenesis of fever is summarized in Figure 17–15. Toxins from bacteria, such as endotoxin, act on monocytes, macrophages, and Kupffer cells to produce cytokines that act as endogenous pyrogens (EPs). There is good evidence that IL-1β, IL-6, IFN-β, IFN-γ, and TNF-α (see Chapter 3) can act independently to produce fever. These circulating cytokines are polypeptides and it is unlikely that they penetrate the brain. Instead, evidence suggests that they act on the OVLT, one of the circumventricular organs (see Chapter 33). This in turn activates the preoptic area of the hypothalamus. Cytokines are also produced by cells in the central nervous system (CNS) when these are stimulated by infection, and these may act directly on the thermoregulatory centers.


FIGURE 17–15 Pathogenesis of fever.

The fever produced by cytokines is probably due to local release of prostaglandins in the hypothalamus. Intrahypothalamic injection of prostaglandins produces fever. In addition, the antipyretic effect of aspirin is exerted directly on the hypothalamus, and aspirin inhibits prostaglandin synthesis. PGE2 is one of the prostaglandins that causes fever. It acts on four sub-types of prostaglandin receptors—EP1, EP2, EP3, and EP4—and knockout of the EP3 receptor impairs the febrile response to PGE2, IL-1β, and endotoxin, or bacterial lipopolysaccharide (LPS).

The benefit of fever to the organism is uncertain. A beneficial effect is assumed because fever has evolved and persisted as a response to infections and other diseases. Many microorganisms grow best within a relatively narrow temperature range and a rise in temperature inhibits their growth. In addition, antibody production is increased when body temperature is elevated. Before the advent of antibiotics, fevers were artificially induced for the treatment of neurosyphilis and proved to be beneficial. Hyperthermia also benefits individuals infected with anthrax, pneumococcal pneumonia, leprosy, and various fungal, rick-ettsial, and viral diseases. Hyperthermia also slows the growth of some tumors. However, very high temperatures are harmful. A rectal temperature over 41°C (106°F) for prolonged periods results in some permanent brain damage. When the temperature is over 43°C, heat stroke develops and death is common.

In malignant hyperthermia, various mutations of the gene coding for the ryanodine receptor (see Chapter 5) lead to excess Ca2+ release during muscle contraction triggered by stress. This in turn leads to contractures of the muscles, increased muscle metabolism, and a great increase in heat production in muscle. The increased heat production causes a marked rise in body temperature that is fatal if not treated.

Periodic fevers also occur in humans with mutations in the gene for pyrin, a protein found in neutrophils; the gene for mevalonate kinase, an enzyme involved in cholesterol synthesis; and the gene for the type 1 TNF receptor, which is involved in inflammatory responses. However, how any of these three mutant gene products cause fever is unknown.


In hibernating mammals, body temperature drops to low levels without causing any demonstrable ill effects on subsequent arousal. This observation led to experiments on induced hypothermia. When the skin or the blood is cooled enough to lower the body temperature in nonhibernating animals or in humans, metabolic and physiologic processes slow down. Respiration and heart rate are very slow, blood pressure is low, and consciousness is lost. At rectal temperatures of about 28°C, the ability to spontaneously return the temperature to normal is lost, but the individual continues to survive and, if rewarmed with external heat, returns to a normal state. If care is taken to prevent the formation of ice crystals in the tissues, the body temperature of experimental animals can be lowered to sub-freezing levels without producing any detectable damage after subsequent rewarming.

Humans tolerate body temperatures of 21–24°C (70–75°F) without permanent ill effects, and induced hypothermia has been used in surgery. On the other hand, accidental hypothermia due to prolonged exposure to cold air or cold water is a serious condition and requires careful monitoring and prompt rewarming.


image Neural connections run between the hypothalamus and the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland, and vascular connections between the hypothalamus and the anterior lobe of the pituitary.

image In most mammals, the hormones secreted by the posterior pituitary gland are vasopressin and oxytocin. Vasopressin increases the permeability of the collecting ducts of the kidney to water, thus concentrating the urine. Oxytocin acts on the breasts (lactation) and the uterus (contraction).

image The anterior pituitary secretes six hormones: adrenocorticotropic hormone (corticotropin, ACTH), thyroid-stimulating hormone (thyrotropin, TSH), growth hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), and prolactin (PRL).

image Other complex autonomic mechanisms that maintain the chemical constancy and temperature of the internal environment are integrated in the hypothalamus.


For all questions, select the single best answer unless otherwise directed.

1. Thirst is stimulated by

A. increases in plasma osmolality and volume.

B. an increase in plasma osmolality and a decrease in plasma volume.

C. a decrease in plasma osmolality and an increase in plasma volume.

D. decreases in plasma osmolality and volume.

E. injection of vasopressin into the hypothalamus.

2. When an individual is naked in a room in which the air temperature is 21°C (69.8°F) and the humidity 80%, the greatest amount of heat is lost from the body by

A. elevated metabolism.

B. respiration.

C. urination.

D. vaporization of sweat.

E. radiation and conduction.

In questions 3–8, select A if the item is associated with (a) below, B if the item is associated with (b) below, C if the item is associated with both (a) and (b), and D if the item is associated with neither (a) nor (b).

(a) V1A vasopressin receptors

(b) V2 vasopressin receptors

3. Activation of Gs

4. Vasoconstriction

5. Increase in intracellular inositol triphosphate

6. Movement of aquaporin

7. Proteinuria

8. Milk ejection


Brunton PJ, Russell JA, Douglas AJ: Adaptive responses of the maternal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis during pregnancy and lactation. J Neuroendocrinol 2008;20:764.

Lamberts SWJ, Hofland LJ, Nobels FRE: Neuroendocrine tumor markers. Front Neuroendocrinol 2001;22:309.

Loh JA, Verbalis JG: Disorders of water and salt metabolism associated with pituitary disease. Endocrinol Metab Clin 2008;37:213.

McKinley MS, Johnson AK: The physiologic regulation of thirst and fluid intake. News Physiol Sci 2004;19:1.