Endotoxin and the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis

J Endotoxin Res. 2003;9(1):3-24. doi: 10.1179/096805103125001298.


Endotoxin is considered to be a systemic (immunological) stressor eliciting a prolonged activation of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA-axis response after an endotoxin challenge is mainly due to released cytokines (IL-1, IL-6 and TNF-alpha) from stimulated peripheral immune cells, which in turn stimulate different levels of the HPA axis. Controversy exists regarding the main locus of action of endotoxin on glucocorticoid secretion, since the effect of endotoxin on this neuro-endocrine axis has been observed in intact animals and after ablation of the hypothalamus; however, a lack of LPS effect has been described at both pituitary and adrenocortical levels. The resulting increase in adrenal glucocorticoids has well-documented inhibitory effects on the inflammatory process and on inflammatory cytokine release. Therefore, immune activation of the adrenal gland by endotoxin is thought to occur by cytokine stimulation of corticosteroid-releasing hormone (CRH) production in the median eminence of the hypothalamus, which, in turn stimulates the secretion of ACTH from the pituitary. Acute administration of endotoxin stimulates ACTH and cortisol secretion and the release of CRH and vasopressin (AVP) in the hypophysial portal blood. During repeated endotoxemia, tolerance of both immune and HPA function develops, with a crucial role for glucocorticoids in the modulation of the HPA axis. A single exposure to a high dose of LPS can induce a long-lasting state of tolerance to a second exposure of LPS, affecting the response of plasma TNF-alpha and HPA hormones. Although there are gender differences in the HPA response to endotoxin and IL-1, these responses are enhanced by castration and attenuated by androgen and estrogen replacement. Estrogens attenuate the endotoxin-induced stimulation of IL-6, TNF-alpha and IL-1ra release and subsequent activation in postmenopausal women. There appears to be a temporal and functional relation between the HPA-axis response to endotoxin and nitric oxide formation in the neuro-endocrine hypothalamus, suggesting a stimulatory role for nitric oxide in modulating the HPA response to immune challenges.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / blood
  • Animals
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / blood
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / drug effects*
  • Lipopolysaccharides / pharmacology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / drug effects*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology
  • Shock, Septic / blood
  • Shock, Septic / immunology


  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone