Radiation and hypothalamic-pituitary function

Baillieres Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1990 Mar;4(1):147-75. doi: 10.1016/s0950-351x(05)80321-0.


In adults, hypopituitarism is a common consequence of external radiotherapy. The clinical manifestations may be subtle and develop insidiously many years after radiotherapy. Anterior pituitary deficiencies can therefore only be detected by regular testing, including dynamic tests of GH and ACTH reserve. Although the deficiencies most commonly develop in the order GH, gonadotrophins, ACTH then TSH, this sequence may not be predictable in an individual patient and comprehensive testing is therefore required. The tests should ideally be performed annually for at least 10 years after treatment or until deficiency has been detected and treated. It is not only the patients with pituitary disease who are at risk of developing hypopituitarism after radiotherapy. Any patient who receives a total dose of irradiation of 20 Gy or more to the hypothalamic-pituitary axis is at risk of hypopituitarism, although the threshold dose may be lower than this. This is particularly important in the long-term survivors of malignant disease in whom endocrine morbidity may be relatively common and in whom this can be easily treated, with consequent improvement in quality of life. Whilst patients who receive a high total dose of irradiation are at increased risk of developing multiple deficiencies, a higher fraction size also increases the risk of anterior pituitary failure. There is good evidence that the earliest damage to the hypothalamic-pituitary axis after external radiotherapy is at the level of the hypothalamus. However, patients who undergo pituitary ablation with interstitial radiotherapy or heavy particle beams are likely to sustain direct damage to the pituitary. In these patients, the sequence in which individual pituitary hormone deficiencies develop is generally the same as that observed with the hypothalamic damage after conventional external radiotherapy. The increasing use of radiotherapy as a means of treatment for malignant disease means that new groups of patients with potential for endocrine dysfunction are emerging. Whole body irradiation in the preparation for bone marrow transplant is one such treatment and although hypothalamic-pituitary damage appears to be confined to GH deficiency in children, longitudinal experience is limited to date, particularly in adults. The treatment of malignant disease in childhood is of particular importance in terms of the delayed endocrine sequelae. The hypothalamic-pituitary axis may not be the only endocrine tissue damaged by treatment in these patients and management is therefore more complicated. In the growing child, the potential association of growth hormone deficiency, gonadal failure or premature puberty and thyroid dysfunction mean that expert endocrine supervision is essential for optimum long-term outcome.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Dose-Response Relationship, Radiation
  • Female
  • Gonadotropins / deficiency
  • Growth Hormone / deficiency
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / radiation effects*
  • Hypothalamus / radiation effects
  • Male
  • Pituitary Gland / radiation effects
  • Puberty / radiation effects
  • Radiotherapy / adverse effects*


  • Gonadotropins
  • Growth Hormone