Regulation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis by Cytokines: Actions and Mechanisms of Action

Physiol Rev. 1999 Jan;79(1):1-71. doi: 10.1152/physrev.1999.79.1.1.


Glucocorticoids are hormone products of the adrenal gland, which have long been recognized to have a profound impact on immunologic processes. The communication between immune and neuroendocrine systems is, however, bidirectional. The endocrine and immune systems share a common "chemical language," with both systems possessing ligands and receptors of "classical" hormones and immunoregulatory mediators. Studies in the early to mid 1980s demonstrated that monocyte-derived or recombinant interleukin-1 (IL-1) causes secretion of hormones of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, establishing that immunoregulators, known as cytokines, play a pivotal role in this bidirectional communication between the immune and neuroendocrine systems. The subsequent 10-15 years have witnessed demonstrations that numerous members of several cytokine families increase the secretory activity of the HPA axis. Because this neuroendocrine action of cytokines is mediated primarily at the level of the central nervous system, studies investigating the mechanisms of HPA activation produced by cytokines take on a more broad significance, with findings relevant to the more fundamental question of how cytokines signal the brain. This article reviews published findings that have documented which cytokines have been shown to influence hormone secretion from the HPA axis, determined under what physiological/pathophysiological circumstances endogenous cytokines regulate HPA axis activity, established the possible sites of cytokine action on HPA axis hormone secretion, and identified the potential neuroanatomic and pharmacological mechanisms by which cytokines signal the neuroendocrine hypothalamus.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cytokines / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology*


  • Cytokines