The gonadotropins, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH), are glycoproteins produced by gonadotrope cells of the anterior pituitary gland. The two hormones act on somatic cells of the gonads in both males and females to regulate fundamental aspects of reproductive physiology, including gametogenesis and steroidogenesis. In males, LH stimulates testosterone production and sperm maturation. FSH also regulates spermatogenesis, though the importance of the hormone in this process differs across species. In females, FSH stimulates ovarian follicle maturation. Follicles are structures composed of oocytes surrounded by two types of somatic cells, granulosa and theca cells. FSH stimulates granulosa cells to proliferate and to increase their production of the aromatase enzyme. LH stimulates theca cells to make androgens, which are converted into estrogens by aromatase in granulosa cells. A surge of LH also stimulates ovulation of mature follicles. Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) from the brain is the principal stimulator of gonadotropin synthesis and secretion from the pituitary. The sex steroids (androgens and estrogens) that are produced by the gonads in response to the gonadotropins feedback to the brain and pituitary gland. In the brain, these hormones usually slow the release of GnRH through a process called negative feedback, which in turn leads to decreases in FSH and LH. The steroids also modulate the sensitivity of the pituitary to GnRH in addition to directly regulating expression of the genes that encode the gonadotropin subunits. These effects are gene- and species-specific. In females, estrogens also have positive feedback actions in the brain and pituitary in a reproductive cycle stage-dependent manner. This positive feedback promotes GnRH and LH release, leading to the surge of LH that triggers ovulation. The gonadotropins are dimeric proteins. FSH and LH share a common α-subunit but have hormone-specific subunits, FSHβ and LHβ. The β subunits provide a means for differential regulation and action of the two hormones. In the case of FSH, there is a second gonadal feedback system that specifically regulates the FSHβ subunit. The gonads produce proteins in the transforming growth factor β (TGFβ) family called inhibins, which come in two forms (inhibin A and inhibin B). The ovary produces both inhibins whereas the testes make inhibin B alone. Inhibins selectively suppress FSH synthesis and secretion, without affecting LH. The pituitary produces additional TGFβ proteins called activins, which are structurally related to inhibins. Activins, however, stimulate FSH synthesis by promoting transcription of the FSHβ subunit gene. Inhibins act as competitive receptor antagonists, binding to activin receptors and blocking activin action, and thereby leading to decreases in FSH. Together, GnRH, sex steroids, activins, and inhibins modulate and coordinate gonadotropin production and action to promote proper gonadal function and fertility.
Daniel J. Bernard, Yining Li, Chirine Toufaily, and Gauthier Schang
Paul E. Micevych and Melinda A. Mittelman-Smith
In the last two decades of the 20th century, key findings in the field of estrogen signaling completely changed our understanding of hormones: first, steroidogenesis was demonstrated in the CNS; second, a vast majority of cells in the nervous system were shown to have estrogen receptors; third, a second nuclear estrogen receptor (ERß) was cloned; and finally, “nuclear” receptors were shown to be present and functional in the cell membrane. Shortly thereafter, even more membrane estrogen receptors were discovered. Steroids (estrogens, in particular) began to be considered as neurotransmitters and their receptors were tethered to G protein-coupled receptor signaling cascades. In some parts of the brain, levels of steroids appeared to be independent of those found in the circulation and yet, circulating steroids had profound actions on the brain physiology. In this review, we discuss the interaction of peripheral and central estrogen action in the context of female reproduction—one of the best-studied aspects of steroid action. In addition to reviewing the evidence for steroidogenesis in the hypothalamus, we review membrane-localized nuclear receptors coupling to G protein-signaling cascades and the downstream physiological consequences for reproduction. We will also introduce newer work that demonstrates cell signaling for a common splice variant of estrogen receptor-α (ERα), and membrane action of neuroprogesterone in regulating estrogen positive feedback.