The hypothalamus is a portion of the brain that contains a number of small nuclei with a variety of functions. One of the most important functions of the hypothalamus is to link the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland (hypophysis).
The hypothalamus is located below the thalamus and is part of the limbic system. In the terminology of neuroanatomy, it forms the ventral part of the diencephalon. All vertebrate brains contain a hypothalamus. In humans, it is the size of an almond.
The hypothalamus is responsible for certain metabolic processes and other activities of the autonomic nervous system. It synthesizes and secretes certain neurohormones, called releasing hormones or hypothalamic hormones, and these in turn stimulate or inhibit the secretion of pituitary hormones. The hypothalamus controls body temperature, hunger, important aspects of parenting and attachment behaviors, thirst, fatigue, sleep, and circadian rhythms.
The hypothalamus is a brain structure made up of distinct nuclei as well as less anatomically distinct areas. It is found in all vertebrate nervous systems. In mammals, magnocellular neurosecretory cells in the paraventricular nucleus and the supraoptic nucleus of the hypothalamus produce neurohypophysial hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin. These hormones are released into the blood in the posterior pituitary. Much smaller parvocellular neurosecretory cells, neurons of the paraventricular nucleus, release corticotropin-releasing hormone and other hormones into the hypophyseal portal system, where these hormones diffuse to the anterior pituitary.
The hypothalamus coordinates many hormonal and behavioural circadian rhythms, complex patterns of neuroendocrine outputs, complex homeostatic mechanisms, and important behaviours. The hypothalamus must, therefore, respond to many different signals, some of which generated externally and some internally. Delta wave signalling arising either in the thalamus or in the cortex influences the secretion of releasing hormones; GHRH and prolactin are stimulated whilst TRH is inhibited.
The hypothalamus is responsive to:
- Light: daylength and photoperiod for regulating circadian and seasonal rhythms
- Olfactory stimuli, including pheromones
- Steroids, including gonadal steroids and corticosteroids
- Neurally transmitted information arising in particular from the heart, the stomach, and the reproductive tract
- Autonomic inputs
- Blood-borne stimuli, including leptin, ghrelin, angiotensin, insulin, pituitary hormones, cytokines, plasma concentrations of glucose and osmolarity etc.
- Invading microorganisms by increasing body temperature, resetting the body’s thermostat upward.