The Endocrine Glands
- Recognize and distinguish the various endocrine organs (thyroid, parathyroid,
adrenal and pituitary).
- Understand the relationship between structure and function especially with
respect to the pituitary.
The endocrine glands are aggregations of epithelial cells embedded within connective
tissue and surrounded by rich vascular networks. They may constitute separate
organs, as the thyroid or adrenal glands, or they may occur as collections of
cells embedded amid the tissues of another organ, such as the pancreatic islets
and the interstitial cells of the testis.
Endocrine glands differ from exocrine glands in that they possess no
excretory ducts, and their secretions are usually released into interstitial
tissue, to be picked up by blood and lymph capillaries. These secretions, the
hormones, are characterized by being effective in minute amounts and often exert
their influence on target organs or tissues at some distance from the gland.
Hormones may be stored within the glandular cells (pituitary), or by a special
means of extracellular storage (the thyroid), or they may be released into the
blood as fast as they are produced (the adrenal cortex). In some glands, the
hormones, their precursors, and even the products associated with hormone formation
may be visible within the individual cells as granules or droplets, particularly
if special staining techniques are applied.
In observing the endocrine glands, the student should pay particular attention
to the relationships of the major structural and functional components, the
epithelial cells and their vascular supply. The particular cytological features
within the epithelial cells which aid in identification of the various glands
should be noted.
Examine the human thyroid (slide 67) under low power.
The glandular epithelium is arranged in follicles lying within a connective
tissue stroma, in which blood vessels and lymphatics form rich
plexuses around each follicle. The follicles are filled with colloid
which contains a high M.W. protein called thyroglobulin. Its staining
properties can vary considerably, even within the same follicle. The apparent
follicular size varies greatly due to differences in the amount of colloid
stored and the plane of section.
Under high magnification, observe the follicular epithelial cells
which may be low cuboidal to low columnar. Note that in some follicles
the edge of the colloid mass is scalloped or vesicular suggesting that
some of the colloid was lost during processing. This is usually attributed
to lowered viscosity adjacent to the cells because of hydrolytic enzyme
activity. Note C.T. and vascular elements found in the interfollicular
These glands consist of four structures attached to, or embedded within, the
posterior surface of each thyroid lobe. The parathyroid secretion, parathormone,
is a polypeptide important in the regulation of calcium and phosphorus metabolism.
The parathyroid glands consist of closely packed masses and cords of epithelial
cells within a stromal meshwork of collagenous and reticular fibers. Oxyphil
cells are interspersed singly or in clumps among the predominant cellular elements,
the chief cells.
Study the parathyroids (slide 68) in both even and odd boxes.
The chief cells are most numerous. They are the relatively small
cells, therefore, their nuclei appeared to be more closely packed. Look
for patches of eosinophilic cells with more widely spaced nuclei and distinct
cell borders. These are oxyphils which may be found in small to
large groups scattered among the chief cells. The oxyphils are larger
cells with a smaller and more densely stained nucleus. The eosin staining
of oxyphils may be faded on some slides, but they may usually be recognized
by their nuclei and distinct cell borders. Some slides have relatively
The adrenal gland is composed of two embryologically and functionally distinct
glands. The cortex is of mesodermal origin and secretes several steroids.
Hormones which exhibit at lease three types of activity; an effect on mineral
metabolism (mineralocorticoids), on carbohydrate metabolism (glucocorticoids)
and on androgenic activity. The activity of the cells in the zona fasciculata
and zona reticularis of the cortex is controlled humorally by the anterior pituitary.
The cells of the adrenal medulla are of neural ectoderm origin, migrating
out from the neural crest in a manner similar to autonomic ganglion cells. They
become typical epithelioid secretory cells arranged in irregular rows with arterioles
and capillaries on their basement membrane side and large venous capillaries
at the opposite pole. Their nuclei lie toward their basement membrane, and the
cells are oriented to secrete into venous capillaries. The cells are under autonomic
control, receiving preganglionic (acetylcholine) fibers; they release their
hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine in response to stimulation by the preganglionic
fiber. There are ganglion cells in the medulla, among the secretory cells.
Start with slide 69, odd (adrenal gland). This well-preserved
tissue (from monkey) clearly demonstrates the major structural features
of the gland. With reversed ocular observe the central basophilic medulla
(containing medium to large veins), surrounded by the eosinophilic cortex.
Using the scanning lens, identify the capsule, cortex, and medulla.
With the 10x lens, begin at the capsule and examine the three zones of
the cortex; the glomerulosa, the fasciculata, and the reticularis. Cells
of the zona glomerulosa are smaller and darker than the next layer
of cells and are arranged in spherical groups or arcades lying just inside
the capsule. Their nuclei stain darkly.
Internal to it is the zona fasciculata. No sharp dividing line
separates the two zones. Cells of the fasciculata are arranged in cords
with large capillary vessels between adjacent cords. In odd slides,
the capillaries are collapsed but are recognizable by the flat nuclei
of endothelial cells (40x). Cells of this zone are the largest
of the cortical zones and light staining due to large empty spaces
in the cytoplasm. These spaces originally contained lipid, but solvents
used in histological preparations extracted it. These cells produce glucocorticoids
and some androgen.
The zona reticularis contains cells which are smaller and
darker than those of the fasciculata and are arranged in anastomosing
cords. From E.M. it is known that cytoplasmic constituents are abundant
and closely packed. These cells produce glucocorticoids and androgen.
(In the even numbered boxes, much of the reticularis was very poorly fixed.
Look at E.M.s of steroid producing cells in your textbook.
The medulla constitutes about 10% of the gland, and, in the
human, is asymmetrically placed in the gland. The head region (odd number)
has a substantial amount, whereas, some of the body and all of the tail
(even numbers) have little or none. The cells of the medulla are large,
arranged in ovoid clusters, and are polarized with respect to their blood
supply. The cells are called chromaffin cells because of their
ability to stain with chromium salts. Specific cells secrete epinephrine;
others secrete norepinephrine. Histochemical stains are required to demonstrate
the different cell types.
Slide 69, even is from the body or tail of a human adrenal
and, thus, has little or no medulla. The description of the cortex above
also applies, but note that the reticularis is poorly preserved. With
reversed ocular, locate the central vein, the largest vessel. Observe
the central vein with the scanning lens; it is surrounded
over much of its surface by cortical tissue although located in the medulla
(the cortical cuff is unique to humans). Starting from the capsule,
work across the slide observing the cortical zones, medulla, cortical
material, central vein, etc.
This gland is composed of two tissue types, an adenohypophysis
(anterior lobe) derived from buccal ectoderm and a neurohypophysis
(posterior lobe) also called pars nervosa derived from neural ectoderm.
The adenohypophysis contains mainly cords of glandular epithelium surrounded
by blood vessels and some C.T. The major anterior portion of this lobe
is called pars distalis. A smaller portion, pars intermedia,
lies between the pars distalis and the posterior lobe neurohypophysis.
The posterior lobe contains mainly nerve processes and endings, (the terminal
portion of the hypothalamo-hypophyseal tract) along with glial cells,
blood vessels and some C.T.
The entire pituitary gland (slide 65), acid fuchsin stain (in odd-numbered
boxes) and Gomori's chrome-alum-hematoxylin-phloxin (in even-numbered boxes)
is enclosed in a C.T. capsule containing collagen, elastic and reticular
fibers. From the capsule, trabeculae project into the anterior lobe, and together
with a meshwork of reticular tissue, support the epithelial cords and vascular
supply. The capillaries are abundant and have a very wide lumen. With the E.M.,
it is seen that their endothelial cells are fenestrated and have a thick basement
membrane. Although traditionally referred to as "sinusoids" their
structure is that of typical fenestrated capillaries.
The endocrine cell types of the anterior lobe have been classified
for light microscopy (L.M.) by their staining as basophilic, acidophilic
or chromophobic. Reddish acidophils and dark blue basophils
are clearly discernible and have numerous granules. The chromophobe
has a slightly basophilic cytoplasm, and few or no granules. Some, but
not all "chromophobes" are degranulated acidophils or basophils.
By E.M. and immunohistochemical techniques, at least six types of secretory
cells are distinguishable according to their fine structure and hormone
content. Such precise discrimination is impossible in sections stained
routinely for L.M. Acidophiles produce somatotropin (growth hormone) and
prolactin. Basophils produce ACTH, FSH, LH, and TSH. Close examination
of the arrangement of the cells in the anterior lobe shows them to be
in irregular cords between relatively large blood capillaries. Pick out
examples of capillaries in the connective tissue. The pars intermedia
at the posterior end of the anterior lobe has dark basophils (presumably
ACTH-MSH secreting cells). The intermediate zone also has follicles containing
a colloid material.
On slide 65, even, locate the posterior lobe by visual inspection
and under low power as a light-staining area resembling CNS tissue. Slides
in odd-numbered boxes have little or no posterior lobe tissue. The
posterior lobe is often separated from the anterior lobe by the intermediate
lobe, but in this specimen, the intermediate lobe basophils are significant
in number and are interposed between the follicles and neurohypophyseal
At 10x, small, dark blue sites are clear, as are nuclei of pituicytes,
a neuroglial "supportive" cell. The dark blue regions are Herring
bodies. They are the axon terminals of the hypothalamo-hypophyseal tract,
and the material being stained are the hormones vasopressin (anti-diuretic
hormone) and oxytocin complexed to carrier molecules (neurophysins).
These neurosecretory droplets are synthesized in the hypothalamus and transported
down the fibers of the tract and accumulate here.
Pituicytes of various shapes may be seen around nerve fibers and Herring bodies.
The nuclei are basically rounded to oval in shape; it will not be possible to
see cytoplasmic processes. Other nuclei belong to fibroblasts or endothelial
Other Endocrine Glands
The Leydig or interstitial cells of the testis produce androgens under pituitary
gonadotropin control. The interstitial follicular and thecal cells of the ovary
contribute to the production of estrogens while the cells of the corpus luteum
form progesterone, all under pituitary gonadotropin control. The placenta has
extensive endocrine functions involving both steroid and polypeptide hormones,
insulin and glucagon. These endocrine tissues are studied when the student examines
the organs in which they are embedded.