Neuroendocrine cells, also known as neurosecretory cells, are specialized neurons that respond to signals from other neurons by releasing hormones into the blood. Upon receiving a neural signal, most neurons transmit electrical signals to other neurons or to particular parts of the body. Neuroendocrine cells are different because they release chemical signals in the form of hormones to send information throughout the body. These specialized cells are important because, as implied by their name, they link the nervous system and the endocrine system. The nervous system sends electrical signals to certain parts of the body for sensory communication and for motor control while the endocrine system is composed of many glands that release hormones into the blood for regulatory purposes.
The hypothalamus, a small but highly important part of the brain, is one of the primary points of neuroendocrine activity in the body. Different parts of the hypothalamus respond to electrical and chemical signals and respond in a wide variety of ways by sending further chemical or electrical signals. The pituitary gland, and important endocrine gland responsible for releasing many important hormones, is connected to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus contains many neuroendocrine cells that release important regulatory chemicals into the blood. Some of these chemicals actually regulate the endocrine activity of the pituitary gland itself.
The realization that many of the chemicals that are released into the blood through the endocrine system are controlled by the brain and nervous system led to the formation of the field of neuroendocrinology. Neuroendocrinology is the field concerned with the study of neuroendocrine cells and of all of the interactions between the endocrine system and the nervous system. Increased understanding of these interactions has led to a more complete understanding of both systems. This is important because there are many different illnesses and disorders related to both systems and to the interactions between them.
There are, for example, several different types of cancer that affect neuroendocrine cells in the neuroendocrine system. The uncontrolled cell division caused by the cancer can cause the neuroendocrine cells to release hormones without plan or centralized control. This uncontrolled release of signaling chemicals throws the chemical balance of the body into a state of disarray, causing many unpleasant symptoms. Such tumors can cause weight gain or weight loss, mood swings, digestive or excretory problems, or many other problems. Many different processes in the body are moderated by the proper balance of chemicals, so uncontrolled release can cause a vast array of problems.