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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the location and structure of the adrenal glands
  • Identify the hormones produced by the adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla, and summarize their target cells and effects

The adrenal glands    are wedges of glandular and neuroendocrine tissue adhering to the top of the kidneys by a fibrous capsule ( [link] ). The adrenal glands have a rich blood supply and experience one of the highest rates of blood flow in the body. They are served by several arteries branching off the aorta, including the suprarenal and renal arteries. Blood flows to each adrenal gland at the adrenal cortex and then drains into the adrenal medulla. Adrenal hormones are released into the circulation via the left and right suprarenal veins.

Adrenal glands

This diagram shows the left adrenal gland located atop the left kidney. The gland is composed of an outer cortex and an inner medulla all surrounded by a connective tissue capsule. The cortex can be subdivided into additional zones, all of which produce different types of hormones. The outermost layer is the zona glomerulosa, which releases mineralcorticoids, such as aldosterone, that regulate mineral balance. Underneath this layer is the zona fasciculate, which releases glucocorticoids, such as cortisol, corticosterone and cortisone, that regulate glucose metabolism. Underneath this layer is the zona reticularis, which releases androgens, such as dehydroepiandrosterone, that stimulate masculinization. Below this layer is the adrenal medulla, which releases stress hormones, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, that stimulate the symphathetic ANS.
Both adrenal glands sit atop the kidneys and are composed of an outer cortex and an inner medulla, all surrounded by a connective tissue capsule. The cortex can be subdivided into additional zones, all of which produce different types of hormones. LM × 204. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

View the University of Michigan WebScope at (External Link) 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 zona glomerulosa    , the zona fasciculata    , and the zona reticularis    . Each region secretes its own set of hormones.

The adrenal cortex    , as a component of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, secretes steroid hormones important for the regulation of the long-term stress response, blood pressure and blood volume, nutrient uptake and storage, fluid and electrolyte balance, and inflammation. The HPA axis involves the stimulation of hormone release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary by the hypothalamus. ACTH then stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce the hormone cortisol. This pathway will be discussed in more detail below.

The adrenal medulla    is neuroendocrine tissue composed of postganglionic sympathetic nervous system (SNS) neurons. It is really an extension of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates homeostasis in the body. The sympathomedullary (SAM) pathway involves the stimulation of the medulla by impulses from the hypothalamus via neurons from the thoracic spinal cord. The medulla is stimulated to secrete the amine hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine.

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 general adaptation syndrome (GAS)    . Stage one of GAS is called the alarm reaction    . This is short-term stress, the fight-or-flight response, mediated by the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal medulla via the SAM pathway. Their function is to prepare the body for extreme physical exertion. Once this stress is relieved, the body quickly returns to normal. The section on the adrenal medulla covers this response in more detail.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Anatomy & Physiology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 04, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11496/1.8
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