3-6-7. The Adrenal Glands
View the University of Michigan WebScope at http://220.127.116.11/Histology/Endocrine%20System/New%20Scans/230_HISTO_40x.svs/view.apml to explore the tissue sample in greater detail.
The adrenal gland consists of an outer cortex of glandular tissue and an inner medulla of nervous tissue. The cortex itself is divided into three zones: the
One of the major functions of the adrenal gland is to respond to stress. Stress can be either physical or psychological or both. Physical stresses include exposing the body to injury, walking outside in cold and wet conditions without a coat on, or malnutrition. Psychological stresses include the perception of a physical threat, a fight with a loved one, or just a bad day at school.
The body responds in different ways to short-term stress and long-term stress following a pattern known as the
If the stress is not soon relieved, the body adapts to the stress in the second stage called the
If the stress continues for a longer term however, the body responds with symptoms quite different than the fight-or-flight response. During the
Adrenal hormones also have several non–stress-related functions, including the increase of blood sodium and glucose levels, which will be described in detail below.
The adrenal cortex consists of multiple layers of lipid-storing cells that occur in three structurally distinct regions. Each of these regions produces different hormones.
Visit this link to view an animation describing the location and function of the adrenal glands. Which hormone produced by the adrenal glands is responsible for the mobilization of energy stores?
Hormones of the Zona Glomerulosa
The most superficial region of the adrenal cortex is the zona glomerulosa, which produces a group of hormones collectively referred to as
Aldosterone is also a key component of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) in which specialized cells of the kidneys secrete the enzyme renin in response to low blood volume or low blood pressure. Renin then catalyzes the conversion of the blood protein angiotensinogen, produced by the liver, to the hormone angiotensin I. Angiotensin I is converted in the lungs to angiotensin II by
For individuals with hypertension, or high blood pressure, drugs are available that block the production of angiotensin II. These drugs, known as ACE inhibitors, block the ACE enzyme from converting angiotensin I to angiotensin II, thus mitigating the latter’s ability to increase blood pressure.
Hormones of the Zona Fasciculata
The intermediate region of the adrenal cortex is the zona fasciculata, named as such because the cells form small fascicles (bundles) separated by tiny blood vessels. The cells of the zona fasciculata produce hormones called
You are probably familiar with prescription and over-the-counter medications containing glucocorticoids, such as cortisone injections into inflamed joints, prednisone tablets and steroid-based inhalers used to manage severe asthma, and hydrocortisone creams applied to relieve itchy skin rashes. These drugs reflect another role of cortisol—the downregulation of the immune system, which inhibits the inflammatory response.
Hormones of the Zona Reticularis
The deepest region of the adrenal cortex is the zona reticularis, which produces small amounts of a class of steroid sex hormones called androgens. During puberty and most of adulthood, androgens are produced in the gonads. The androgens produced in the zona reticularis supplement the gonadal androgens. They are produced in response to ACTH from the anterior pituitary and are converted in the tissues to testosterone or estrogens. In adult women, they may contribute to the sex drive, but their function in adult men is not well understood. In post-menopausal women, as the functions of the ovaries decline, the main source of estrogens becomes the androgens produced by the zona reticularis.
As noted earlier, the adrenal cortex releases glucocorticoids in response to long-term stress such as severe illness. In contrast, the adrenal medulla releases its hormones in response to acute, short-term stress mediated by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
The medullary tissue is composed of unique postganglionic SNS neurons called
The secretion of medullary epinephrine and norepinephrine is controlled by a neural pathway that originates from the hypothalamus in response to danger or stress (the SAM pathway). Both epinephrine and norepinephrine signal the liver and skeletal muscle cells to convert glycogen into glucose, resulting in increased blood glucose levels. These hormones increase the heart rate, pulse, and blood pressure to prepare the body to fight the perceived threat or flee from it. In addition, the pathway dilates the airways, raising blood oxygen levels. It also prompts vasodilation, further increasing the oxygenation of important organs such as the lungs, brain, heart, and skeletal muscle. At the same time, it triggers vasoconstriction to blood vessels serving less essential organs such as the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, and skin, and downregulates some components of the immune system. Other effects include a dry mouth, loss of appetite, pupil dilation, and a loss of peripheral vision. The major hormones of the adrenal glands are summarized in Table 1.
Table 1. Hormones of the Adrenal Glands
Disorders Involving the Adrenal Glands
Several disorders are caused by the dysregulation of the hormones produced by the adrenal glands. For example, Cushing’s disease is a disorder characterized by high blood glucose levels and the accumulation of lipid deposits on the face and neck. It is caused by hypersecretion of cortisol. The most common source of Cushing’s disease is a pituitary tumor that secretes cortisol or ACTH in abnormally high amounts. Other common signs of Cushing’s disease include the development of a moon-shaped face, a buffalo hump on the back of the neck, rapid weight gain, and hair loss. Chronically elevated glucose levels are also associated with an elevated risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In addition to hyperglycemia, chronically elevated glucocorticoids compromise immunity, resistance to infection, and memory, and can result in rapid weight gain and hair loss.
In contrast, the hyposecretion of corticosteroids can result in Addison’s disease, a rare disorder that causes low blood glucose levels and low blood sodium levels. The signs and symptoms of Addison’s disease are vague and are typical of other disorders as well, making diagnosis difficult. They may include general weakness, abdominal pain, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, sweating, and cravings for salty food.
The adrenal glands, located superior to each kidney, consist of two regions: the adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla. The adrenal cortex—the outer layer of the gland—produces mineralocorticoids, glucocorticoids, and androgens. The adrenal medulla at the core of the gland produces epinephrine and norepinephrine.
The adrenal glands mediate a short-term stress response and a long-term stress response. A perceived threat results in the secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal medulla, which mediate the fight-or-flight response. The long-term stress response is mediated by the secretion of CRH from the hypothalamus, which triggers ACTH, which in turn stimulates the secretion of corticosteroids from the adrenal cortex. The mineralocorticoids, chiefly aldosterone, cause sodium and fluid retention, which increases blood volume and blood pressure.
Interactive Link Questions
Visit this link to view an animation describing the location and function of the adrenal glands. Which hormone produced by the adrenal glands is responsible for mobilization of energy stores?
The adrenal glands are attached superiorly to which organ?
What secretory cell type is found in the adrenal medulla?
Cushing’s disease is a disorder caused by ________.
Which of the following responses s not part of the fight-or-flight response?
Critical Thinking Questions
What are the three regions of the adrenal cortex and what hormones do they produce?
The outer region is the zona glomerulosa, which produces mineralocorticoids such as aldosterone; the next region is the zona fasciculata, which produces glucocorticoids such as cortisol; the inner region is the zona reticularis, which produces androgens.
If innervation to the adrenal medulla were disrupted, what would be the physiological outcome?
Damage to the innervation of the adrenal medulla would prevent the adrenal glands from responding to the hypothalamus during the fight-or-flight response. Therefore, the response would be reduced.
Compare and contrast the short-term and long-term stress response.
The short-term stress response involves the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, which work to increase the oxygen supply to organs important for extreme muscular action such as the brain, lungs, and muscles. In the long-term stress response, the hormone cortisol is involved in catabolism of glycogen stores, proteins, and triglycerides, glucose and ketone synthesis, and downregulation of the immune system.
general adaptation syndrome (GAS)
stage of exhaustion
stage of resistance