Effects of growth hormone on the tissues of the body can generally be described as anabolic (building up). Like most other protein hormones, GH acts by interacting with a specific receptor on the surface of cells.
Increased height during childhood is the most widely known effect of GH. Height appears to be stimulated by at least two mechanisms:
- Because polypeptide hormones are not fat-soluble, they cannot penetrate sarcolemma. Thus, GH exerts some of its effects by binding to receptors on target cells, where it activates the MAPK/ERK pathway. Through this mechanism GH directly stimulates division and multiplication of chondrocytes of cartilage.
- GH also stimulates, through the JAK-STAT signaling pathway, The liver is a major target organ of GH for this process and is the principal site of IGF-1 production. IGF-1 has growth-stimulating effects on a wide variety of tissues. Additional IGF-1 is generated within target tissues, making it what appears to be both an endocrine and an autocrine/paracrine hormone. IGF-1 also has stimulatory effects on osteoblast and chondrocyte activity to promote bone growth.
In addition to increasing height in children and adolescents, growth hormone has many other effects on the body:
- Increases calcium retention, and strengthens and increases the mineralization of bone
- Increases muscle mass through sarcomere hyperplasia
- Promotes lipolysis
- Increases protein synthesis
- Stimulates the growth of all internal organs excluding the brain
- Plays a role in fuel homeostasis
- Reduces liver uptake of glucose
- Promotes gluconeogenesis in the liver
- Contributes to the maintenance and function of pancreatic islets
- Stimulates the immune system
The most common disease of GH excess is a pituitary tumor composed of somatotroph cells of the anterior pituitary. These somatotroph adenomas are benign and grow slowly, gradually producing more and more GH. For years, the principal clinical problems are those of GH excess. Eventually, the adenoma may become large enough to cause headaches, impair vision by pressure on the optic nerves, or cause deficiency of other pituitary hormones by displacement.
Prolonged GH excess thickens the bones of the jaw, fingers and toes. Resulting heaviness of the jaw and increased size of digits is referred to as acromegaly. Accompanying problems can include sweating, pressure on nerves (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrome), muscle weakness, excess sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), insulin resistance or even a rare form of type 2 diabetes, and reduced sexual function.
GH-secreting tumors are typically recognized in the fifth decade of life. It is extremely rare for such a tumor to occur in childhood, but, when it does, the excessive GH can cause excessive growth, traditionally referred to as pituitary gigantism.
Surgical removal is the usual treatment for GH-producing tumors. In some circumstances, focused radiation or a GH antagonist such as pegvisomant may be employed to shrink the tumor or block function. Other drugs like octreotide (somatostatin agonist) and bromocriptine (dopamine agonist) can be used to block GH secretion because both somatostatin and dopamine negatively inhibit GHRH-mediated GH release from the anterior pituitary.
The effects of growth hormone deficiency vary depending on the age at which they occur. In children, growth failure and short stature are the major manifestations of GH deficiency, with common causes including genetic conditions and congenital malformations. It can also cause delayed sexual maturity. In adults, deficiency is rare, with the most common cause a pituitary adenoma, and others including a continuation of a childhood problem, other structural lesions or trauma, and very rarely idiopathic GHD.
Adults with GHD present with non-specific problems including truncal obesity with a relative decrease in muscle mass and, in many instances, decreased energy and quality of life. At the conclusion of the study, all the men showed statistically significant increases in lean body mass and bone mineral, while the control group did not. The authors of the study noted that these improvements were the opposite of the changes that would normally occur over a 10- to 20-year aging period. Despite the fact the authors at no time claimed that GH had reversed the aging process itself, their results were misinterpreted as indicating that GH is an effective anti-aging agent. This has led to organizations such as the controversial American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine promoting the use of this hormone as an "anti-aging agent".
A Stanford University School of Medicine survey of clinical studies on the subject published in early 2007 showed that the application of GH on healthy elderly patients increased muscle by about 2 kg and decreased body fat by the same amount.
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