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What is Neuroendocrinology?

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  • Written By: John Lister
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2016
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Neuroendocrinology involves studying the way the nervous system interacts with the hormone, or endocrine system. One goal is to find ways of treating diseases related to this interaction. Another goal is to find ways to better regulate this interaction in humans and other animals.

Before neuroendocrinology developed, the nervous and endocrine systems were seen as totally separate. The nervous system uses nerves to carry information around the body and most notably carries instructions from the brain to muscles. The endocrine system carries information mainly through the blood system. It uses hormones to control activity such as growth, puberty and metabolism.

With the nervous system transmitting instructions almost instantaneously, and the endocrine system working through slow, gradual release of hormones, the two systems were historically seen as unrelated. The catalyst to neuroendocrinology becoming an established subject was the realization that the way the pituitary gland releases hormones is controlled by the hypothalamus. This meant there had to be a link between the nervous system and the endocrine system.

The physical link between the two systems lies between the hypothalamus and the anterior pituitary. The former is a small part of the brain which is part of the nervous system. The latter is a gland housed at the bottom of the brain and is part of the endocrine system. The two are connected through a system of blood vessels known as the hypophyseal portal system.

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The most significant discovery of neuroendocrinology is that some hormones are produced by the hypothalamus itself rather than originating in glands such as the pituitary. This discovery allowed scientists to explore different explanations for how the brain regulates activity such as growth. It also meant they could develop drugs which were better targeted to restore or stimulate the production of these hormones.

There are numerous areas in which neuroendocrinology has helped medical research. For example, some scientists believe that fatty tissue behavior may not be controlled solely through the hormones of the endocrine system. They believe it may be affected by signals sent through the hypothalamus as well. As they believe that people eating and exercising at increasingly irregular or unconventional times affects the brain’s sense of rhythm, the hypothalamus may also be producing hormones which affect fat tissue. While this is only a theory, it does demonstrate how neuroendocrinology can throw up different explanations for the way the interaction between the nervous system and hormones affects the body.

Neuroendocrinology has also helped better diagnose variations on diseases. For example, a disease known as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis involves antibodies attacking the thyroid gland. A variant known as Hashimoto's Encephalopathy involves antibodies which also attack neurons in the brain. The study of neuroendocrinology has made it easier for scientists to distinguish between these two diseases, as well as between Hashimoto's Encephalopathy and other neuron-related diseases.

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