Alpha-cells of the endocrine pancreas: 35 years of research but the enigma remains

Endocr Rev. 2007 Feb;28(1):84-116. doi: 10.1210/er.2006-0007. Epub 2007 Jan 16.


Glucagon, a hormone secreted from the alpha-cells of the endocrine pancreas, is critical for blood glucose homeostasis. It is the major counterpart to insulin and is released during hypoglycemia to induce hepatic glucose output. The control of glucagon secretion is multifactorial and involves direct effects of nutrients on alpha-cell stimulus-secretion coupling as well as paracrine regulation by insulin and zinc and other factors secreted from neighboring beta- and delta-cells within the islet of Langerhans. Glucagon secretion is also regulated by circulating hormones and the autonomic nervous system. In this review, we describe the components of the alpha-cell stimulus secretion coupling and how nutrient metabolism in the alpha-cell leads to changes in glucagon secretion. The islet cell composition and organization are described in different species and serve as a basis for understanding how the numerous paracrine, hormonal, and nervous signals fine-tune glucagon secretion under different physiological conditions. We also highlight the pathophysiology of the alpha-cell and how hyperglucagonemia represents an important component of the metabolic abnormalities associated with diabetes mellitus. Therapeutic inhibition of glucagon action in patients with type 2 diabetes remains an exciting prospect.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Cell Communication
  • Diabetes Mellitus / pathology
  • Diabetes Mellitus / therapy
  • Glucagon-Secreting Cells / metabolism
  • Glucagon-Secreting Cells / pathology
  • Glucagon-Secreting Cells / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological