The adrenal glands (also known as suprarenal glands) are endocrine glands that produce a variety of hormones including adrenaline and the steroids aldosterone and cortisol. They are found above the kidneys. Each gland has an outer cortex which produces steroid hormones and an inner medulla. The adrenal cortex itself is divided into three zones: the zona glomerulosa, the zona fasciculata and the zona reticularis.
The adrenal cortex is the outermost layer of the adrenal gland. Within the cortex are three layers, called "zones". When viewed under a microscope each layer has a distinct appearance, and each has a different function. The adrenal cortex is devoted to production of hormones, namely aldosterone, cortisol, and androgens.
The outermost zone of the adrenal cortex is the zona glomerulosa. It lies immediately under the fibrous capsule of the gland. Cells in this layer form oval groups, separated by thin strands of connective tissue from the fibrous capsule of the gland and carry wide capillaries.
This layer is the main site for production of aldosterone, a mineralocorticoid, by the action of the enzyme aldosterone synthase. Aldosterone plays an important role in the long-term regulation of blood pressure.
The zona fasciculata is situated between the zona glomerulosa and zona reticularis. Cells in this layer are responsible for producing glucocorticoids such as cortisol. It is the largest of the three layers, accounting for nearly 80% of the volume of the cortex. In the zona fasciculata, cells are arranged in columns radially oriented towards the medulla. Cells contain numerous lipid droplets, abundant mitochondria and a complex smooth endoplasmic reticulum.
The innermost cortical layer, the zona reticularis, lies directly adjacent to the medulla. It produces androgens, mainly dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), DHEA sulfate (DHEA-S), and androstenedione (the precursor to testosterone) in humans. Its small cells form irregular cords and clusters, separated by capillaries and connective tissue. The cells contain relatively small quantities of cytoplasm and lipid droplets, and sometimes display brown lipofuscin pigment.
The adrenal medulla is at the centre of each adrenal gland, and is surrounded by the adrenal cortex. The chromaffin cells of the medulla are the body's main source of the catecholamines adrenaline and noradrenaline, released by the medulla. Approximately 20% noradrenaline (norepinephrine) and 80% adrenaline (epinephrine) are secreted here.
The adrenal medulla is driven by the sympathetic nervous system via preganglionic fibers originating in the thoracic spinal cord, from vertebrae T5–T11.Because it is innervated by preganglionic nerve fibers, the adrenal medulla can be considered as a specialized sympathetic ganglion.Unlike other sympathetic ganglia, however, the adrenal medulla lacks distinct synapses and releases its secretions directly into the blood.
Secondary adrenal insufficiency
Congenital adrenal hyperplasia
Pheochromocytomas are tumors of the adrenal medulla that arise from chromaffin cells. They can produce a variety of nonspecific symptoms, which include headaches, sweating, anxiety and palpitations. Common signs include hypertension and tachycardia. Surgery, especially adrenal laparoscopy, is the most common treatment for small pheochromocytomas.