The Adrenal Daily

The Adrenal Daily
Publishers: Trelene T.
Junior L.
Shawn S.
Volume Number: IV
Issue Number: I
Date: March 21, 2004
Histology of the Adrenal
When you think about the
adrenal glands, you should think about
stress. Stress can take many forms:
taking an examination, recovering from a
broken bone, running away from an
invading army, or maintaining proper
levels of energy substrates in the face of
even mild starvation. For human males,
there is even considerable stress
associated with shopping.
Two Glands in One!!
"Two glands in one" is an apt
description of the adrenal gland.
Sectioning through this endocrine gland
reveals a pale medulla surrounded by a
darker cortex, and each of these two
regions produces a distinctly different
group of hormones.
The two adrenal glands are
located immediately anterior to
the kidneys, encased in a
connective tissue capsule and
usually partially buried in an island
of fat. Like the kidneys, the
adrenal glands lie beneath the
peritoneum (i.e. they are
retroperitoneal). The exact location
relative to the kidney and the
shape of the adrenal gland vary
among species.
An inner medulla, which is
a source of the catecholamines
epinephrine and norepinephrine.
The chromaffin cell is the principle
cell type. The medulla is richly
innervated by preganglionic
sympathetic fibers and is, in
essence, an extension of the
sympathetic nervous system.
An outer cortex, which
secretes several classes of steroid
hormones (glucocorticoids and
mineralocorticoids, plus a few
others). Histologic examination of
the cortex reveals three concentric
zones of cells that differ in the
major steroid hormones they
Despite their organization into a single
gland, the medulla and cortex are
functionally different endocrine
organs, and have different
embryological origins. The medulla
derives from ectoderm (neural crest),
while the cortex develops from
mesoderm. The utility, if any, of having
them together in one discrete organ is not
obvious. In some species, amphibians
and certain fish, for example, two
separate organs are found.
*Adrenal Cancer*
Adrenocortical carcinoma is
a rare tumor afflicting only one or two
persons per one million population. It
usually occurs in adults, and the median
age at diagnosis is 44 years. Although
potentially curable at early stages, only
30% of these malignancies are confined
to the adrenal gland at the time of
diagnosis. Because these tumors tend to
be found years after they began growing,
they have the opportunity to invade
nearby organs, spread to distant organs
(metastasize) and cause numerous
changes in the body because of the
excess hormones they produce.
Characteristics of Adrenal
Cortical Cancer
Typically an aggressive cancer.
Most (~60%) are found because excess
hormone production causes symptoms
which prompt patients to seek medical
Most (60-80%) actually secrete high
amounts of one or more adrenal
Many will present with pain in the
abdomen and flank (nearly all that don't
present with symptoms of hormone
excess will seek medical attention
because of pain).
Spread to distant organs (metastasis)
occurs most commonly to the abdominal
cavity, lungs, liver, and bone.
Adrenal Syndromes
Caused by Excess
Hormone Secretion
As noted, many patients will seek
medical attention with some sort of
bodily change which typically comes
on quite slowly (usually over one to
three years). When excess female
hormones are produced in a female it can
be hard to detect, except at extremes of
age such as early puberty in a child, or
the return of vaginal bleeding in a postmenopausal woman. The same is true for
excess testosterone in a male. The
opposite, however, will often make the
presentation easier such as when a
woman begins to develop male
characteristics (deeper voice, excess
body hair) or when a man begins to
develop enlarged breasts. Some of these
hormone overproduction problems have
specific names and are listed below.
hypercortisolism (Cushing's
syndrome) (excess cortisol produced)
adrenogenital syndrome (excess sex
steroids produced)
virilization (acquisition of male traits
in a female because of excess
testosterone production)
feminization (acquisition of female
traits in a male because of excess
estrogen production)
precocious puberty (puberty occurring
too early because of excess sex steroids
hyperaldosteronism (Conn's
syndrome) (excess aldosterone leading to
hypertension and low potassium)
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