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What Is the Pituitary Gland? - Functions, Hormones & Hypothalamus

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  • 0:03 Pituitary Gland
  • 1:12 Hypothalamus and…
  • 2:55 Anterior Pituitary Gland
  • 3:58 Posterior Pituitary Gland
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jim Heald

Jim has taught undergraduate engineering courses and has a master's degree in mechanical engineering.

In this lesson, we'll discuss the functions of the anterior and posterior portions of the pituitary gland, the hormones they release and the relationship with the hypothalamus.

Pituitary Gland

Located beneath the brain, the pituitary gland is a pea-sized endocrine gland that sits in a bony pocket in the base of the skull called the pituitary fossa. The pituitary fossa is also known as the 'sella turcica,' which translates to 'Turkish saddle' because it resembles a saddle with supports in the front and back used by the Turkish people. Despite its small size, the pituitary gland plays such an important role in controlling the body that it is often called the 'master gland.'

There are actually two main parts of the pituitary gland. The front portion, commonly referred to as the anterior pituitary, is also known as the adenohypophysis. The back portion, or posterior pituitary, is called the neurohypophysis. We can keep these two names straight by noting that the words 'anterior' and 'adenohypophysis' both start with the letter 'A.'

The pituitary gland is attached to the hypothalamus by the pituitary stalk, which contains nerves and a unique circulatory system, which enables communication between the two. Let's take a closer look at the way the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland work together.

Hypothalamus and Pituitary Gland

A good way to visualize the relationship between the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland is like the president and his chief of staff. While the hypothalamus, or president, makes the decisions, the pituitary gland, or chief of staff, executes those decisions by sending out commands to the rest of the body.

The hypothalamus monitors the body through the circulatory and nervous systems. When it detects that something is out of balance, it sends a message to the pituitary gland that a corrective action is needed. When the pituitary gland gets this message from the hypothalamus, it releases specific hormones into the bloodstream that can stimulate other endocrine glands, organs or tissues, depending on what action is needed.

It's kind of like a game of telephone. Instead of the hypothalamus communicating directly with the body, it relies on the pituitary gland to send out the messages. The hypothalamus continues to monitor the state of the body, and when it detects that balance has been restored, it tells the pituitary gland to stop sending out stimulating messages, thereby stopping the corrective action.

An example of this process is when we become dehydrated. The hypothalamus is able to detect the increased blood concentration caused by the loss of water. To correct the situation, it uses the posterior pituitary to release anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) into the circulatory system. When ADH reaches the kidneys, it causes more water to be reabsorbed into the bloodstream, diluting the blood. When the hypothalamus detects the return to a normal blood concentration, it stops the release of ADH from the pituitary gland, and the kidneys return to normal functioning.

Anterior Pituitary Gland

The hypothalamus communicates with the anterior portion of the pituitary gland by way of hormonal messages. These messages come in the form of hypothalamic-releasing and hypothalamic-inhibiting hormones, which tell the anterior pituitary to start or stop an action. Located in the pituitary stalk, a unique arrangement of capillaries and veins, called a portal system, allows the hypothalamic hormones to pass directly to the anterior pituitary without circulating through the body.

The anterior pituitary contains glands that produce and store a number of different hormones that control many different functions throughout the body. When a hormone message comes down from the hypothalamus, the anterior pituitary releases its own hormones into the main circulatory system to control the needed action.

These pituitary hormones can stimulate other endocrine glands, such as the thyroid, the adrenal cortex and the gonads. The anterior pituitary also sends growth hormone to the bones and muscles and prolactin to the mammary glands to stimulate milk production during pregnancy.

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