A major organ of the endocrine system, the anterior pituitary (also called the adenohypophysis or pars anterior), is the glandular, anterior lobe that together with the posterior lobe (posterior pituitary, or the neurohypophysis) makes up the pituitary gland (hypophysis). The anterior pituitary regulates several physiological processes including stress, growth, reproduction and lactation. Proper functioning of the anterior pituitary and of the organs it regulates can often be ascertained via blood tests that measure hormone levels.
The pituitary gland is a pea-sized gland that sits in a protective bony enclosure called the sella turcica (Turkish chair/saddle). It is composed of three lobes: the anterior, intermediate, and posterior lobes. In many animals, these lobes are distinct. However, in humans, the intermediate lobe is but a few cell layers thick and indistinct; as a result, it is often considered as part of the anterior pituitary. In all animals, the fleshy, glandular anterior pituitary is distinct from the neural composition of the posterior pituitary.
The anterior pituitary is composed of three regions:
The anterior pituitary is derived from the ectoderm, more specifically from that of Rathke’s pouch, part of the developing hard palate in the embryo.
The pouch eventually loses its connection with the pharynx, giving rise to the anterior pituitary. The anterior wall of Rathke's pouch proliferates, filling most of the pouch to form the pars distalis and the pars tuberalis. The posterior wall of the anterior pituitary forms the pars intermedia. Its formation from the soft tissues of the upper palate contrasts with the posterior pituitary, which originates from neuroectoderm.
The anterior pituitary contains five types of endocrine cell, and they are defined by the hormones they secrete: somatotropes (GH); prolactins (PRL); gonadotropes (LH and FSH); corticotropes (ACTH) and thyrotropes (TSH).
Hormones secreted by the anterior pituitary are trophic hormones (Greek: trophe, “nourishment”) and tropic hormones. Trophic hormones directly affect growth either as hyperplasia or hypertrophy on the tissue it is stimulating. Tropic hormones are named for their ability to act directly on target tissues or other endocrine glands to release hormones, causing numerous cascading physiological responses.
Hormone secretion from the anterior pituitary gland is regulated by hormones secreted by the hypothalamus. Neuroendocrine cells in the hypothalamus project axons to the median eminence, at the base of the brain. At this site, these cells can release substances into small blood vessels that travel directly to the anterior pituitary gland (the hypothalamo-hypophyseal portal vessels).
Aside from hypothalamic control of the anterior pituitary, other systems in the body have been shown to regulate the anterior pituitary’s function. GABA can either stimulate or inhibit the secretion of luteinizing hormone (LH) and growth hormone (GH) and can stimulate the secretion of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Prostaglandins are now known to inhibit adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and also to stimulate TSH, GH and LH release. GABA, through action with the hypothalamus, has been shown experimentally to influence the level of GH secretion. Clinical evidence supports the experimental findings of the excitatory and inhibitory effects GABA has on GH secretion, dependent on GABA’s site of action within the hypothalamic-pituitary unit.
The homeostatic maintenance of the anterior pituitary is crucial to our physiological well being. Increased plasma levels of TSH induce hyperthermia through a mechanism involving increased metabolism and cutaneous vasodilation. Increased levels of LH also result in hypothermia but through a decreased metabolism action. ACTH increase metabolism and induce cutaneous vasoconstriction, increased plasma levels also result in hyperthermia and prolactin decreases with decreasing temperature values. follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) also may cause hypothermia if increased beyond homeostatic levels through an increased metabolic mechanism only.
Gonadotropes, primarily luteinising hormone (LH) secreted from the anterior pituitary stimulates the ovulation cycle in female mammals, whilst in the males, LH stimulates the synthesis of androgen which drives the ongoing will to mate together with a constant production of sperm.
Main article Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis
The anterior pituitary plays a role in stress response. Corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus stimulates ACTH release in a cascading effect that ends with the production of glucocorticoids from the adrenal cortex.
Hyperpituitarism is the condition where the pituitary secretes excessive amounts of hormones. This hypersecretion often results in the formation of a pituitary adenoma (tumour), which are benign apart from a tiny fraction. There are mainly three types of anterior pituitary tumors and their associated disorders. For example, acromegaly results from excessive secretion of growth hormone (GH) often being released by a pituitary adenoma. This disorder can cause disfigurement and possibly death and can lead to gigantism, a hormone disorder shown in “giants” such as André the Giant, where it occurs before the epiphyseal plates in bones close in puberty. The most common type of pituitary tumour is a prolactinoma which hypersecretes prolactin. A third type of pituitary adenoma secretes excess ACTH, which in turn, causes an excess of cortisol to be secreted and is the cause of Cushing's disease.
Hypopituitarism is characterized by a decreased secretion of hormones released by the anterior pituitary. For example, hypo-secretion of GH prior to puberty can be a cause of dwarfism. In addition, secondary adrenal insufficiency can be caused by hypo-secretion of ACTH which, in turn, does not signal the adrenal cortex to produce a sufficient amount of cortisol. This is a life-threatening condition. Hypopituitarism could be caused by the destruction or removal of the anterior pituitary tissue through traumatic brain injury, tumor, tuberculosis, or syphilis, among other causes. This disorder used to be referred to as Simmonds' disease but now according to the Diseases Database it is called Sheehan syndrome. If the hypopituitarism is caused by the blood loss associated with childbirth, the disorder is referred to as Sheehan syndrome.
The anterior pituitary is also known as the adenohypophysis, meaning "glandular undergrowth", from the Greek adeno- ("gland"), hypo ("under"), and physis ("growth").