OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology
Testosterone, an androgen, is a steroid hormone produced by Leydig cells. The alternate term for Leydig cells, interstitial cells, reflects their location between the seminiferous tubules in the testes. In male embryos, testosterone is secreted by Leydig cells by the seventh week of development, with peak concentrations reached in the second trimester. This early release of testosterone results in the anatomical differentiation of the male sexual organs. In childhood, testosterone concentrations are low. They increase during puberty, activating characteristic physical changes and initiating spermatogenesis.
Functions of Testosterone
The continued presence of testosterone is necessary to keep the male reproductive system working properly, and Leydig cells produce approximately 6 to 7 mg of testosterone per day. Testicular steroidogenesis (the manufacture of androgens, including testosterone) results in testosterone concentrations that are 100 times higher in the testes than in the circulation. Maintaining these normal concentrations of testosterone promotes spermatogenesis, whereas low levels of testosterone can lead to infertility. In addition to intratesticular secretion, testosterone is also released into the systemic circulation and plays an important role in muscle development, bone growth, the development of secondary sex characteristics, and maintaining libido (sex drive) in both males and females. In females, the ovaries secrete small amounts of testosterone, although most is converted to estradiol. A small amount of testosterone is also secreted by the adrenal glands in both sexes.
Control of Testosterone
The regulation of testosterone concentrations throughout the body is critical for male reproductive function. The intricate interplay between the endocrine system and the reproductive system is shown in the image above.
The regulation of Leydig cell production of testosterone begins outside of the testes. The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland in the brain integrate external and internal signals to control testosterone synthesis and secretion. The regulation begins in the hypothalamus. Pulsatile release of a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) from the hypothalamus stimulates the endocrine release of hormones from the pituitary gland. Binding of GnRH to its receptors on the anterior pituitary gland stimulates release of the two gonadotropins: luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). These two hormones are critical for reproductive function in both men and women. In men, FSH binds predominantly to the Sertoli cells within the seminiferous tubules to promote spermatogenesis. FSH also stimulates the Sertoli cells to produce hormones called inhibins, which function to inhibit FSH release from the pituitary, thus reducing testosterone secretion. These polypeptide hormones correlate directly with Sertoli cell function and sperm number; inhibin B can be used as a marker of spermatogenic activity. In men, LH binds to receptors on Leydig cells in the testes and upregulates the production of testosterone.
A negative feedback loop predominantly controls the synthesis and secretion of both FSH and LH. Low blood concentrations of testosterone stimulate the hypothalamic release of GnRH. GnRH then stimulates the anterior pituitary to secrete LH into the bloodstream. In the testis, LH binds to LH receptors on Leydig cells and stimulates the release of testosterone. When concentrations of testosterone in the blood reach a critical threshold, testosterone itself will bind to androgen receptors on both the hypothalamus and the anterior pituitary, inhibiting the synthesis and secretion of GnRH and LH, respectively. When the blood concentrations of testosterone once again decline, testosterone no longer interacts with the receptors to the same degree and GnRH and LH are once again secreted, stimulating more testosterone production. This same process occurs with FSH and inhibin to control spermatogenesis.
Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology