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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the location and anatomy of the thyroid gland
  • Discuss the synthesis of triiodothyronine and thyroxine
  • Explain the role of thyroid hormones in the regulation of basal metabolism
  • Identify the hormone produced by the parafollicular cells of the thyroid

A butterfly-shaped organ, the thyroid gland    is located anterior to the trachea, just inferior to the larynx ( [link] ). The medial region, called the isthmus, is flanked by wing-shaped left and right lobes. Each of the thyroid lobes are embedded with parathyroid glands, primarily on their posterior surfaces. The tissue of the thyroid gland is composed mostly of thyroid follicles. The follicles are made up of a central cavity filled with a sticky fluid called colloid    . Surrounded by a wall of epithelial follicle cells, the colloid is the center of thyroid hormone production, and that production is dependent on the hormones’ essential and unique component: iodine.

Thyroid gland

Part A of this figure is a diagram of the anterior view of the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland wrapping around the trachea. It narrows at its center, just under the thyroid cartilage of the larynx. This narrow area is called the isthmus of the thyroid. Two large arteries, the common carotid arteries, run parallel to the trachea on the outer border of the thyroid. A small artery enters the superior edge of the thyroid, near the isthmus, and branches throughout the two “wings” of the thyroid. Part B of this figure is a posterior view of the thyroid. The posterior view shows that the thyroid does not completely wrap around the posterior of the trachea. The posterior sides of the thyroid wings can be seen protruding from under the cricoid cartilage of the larynx. The posterior sides of the thyroid “wings” each contain two small, disc-shaped parathyroid glands embedded in the thyroid tissue. Within each wing, one disc is located superior to the other. These are labeled the left and right parathyroid glands. Just under the inferior parathyroid glands are two arteries that bring blood to the thyroid from the left and right subclavian arteries. Part C of this figure is a micrograph of thyroid tissue. The thyroid follicle cells are cuboidal epithelial cells. These cells form a ring around irregular-shaped cavities called follicles. The follicles contain light colored colloid. A larger parafollicular cell is embedded between two of the follicular cells near the edge of a follicle.
The thyroid gland is located in the neck where it wraps around the trachea. (a) Anterior view of the thyroid gland. (b) Posterior view of the thyroid gland. (c) The glandular tissue is composed primarily of thyroid follicles. The larger parafollicular cells often appear within the matrix of follicle cells. LM × 1332. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

Synthesis and release of thyroid hormones

Hormones are produced in the colloid when atoms of the mineral iodine attach to a glycoprotein, called thyroglobulin, that is secreted into the colloid by the follicle cells. The following steps outline the hormones’ assembly:

  1. Binding of TSH to its receptors in the follicle cells of the thyroid gland causes the cells to actively transport iodide ions (I ) across their cell membrane, from the bloodstream into the cytosol. As a result, the concentration of iodide ions “trapped” in the follicular cells is many times higher than the concentration in the bloodstream.
  2. Iodide ions then move to the lumen of the follicle cells that border the colloid. There, the ions undergo oxidation (their negatively charged electrons are removed). The oxidation of two iodide ions (2 I ) results in iodine (I 2 ), which passes through the follicle cell membrane into the colloid.
  3. In the colloid, peroxidase enzymes link the iodine to the tyrosine amino acids in thyroglobulin to produce two intermediaries: a tyrosine attached to one iodine and a tyrosine attached to two iodines. When one of each of these intermediaries is linked by covalent bonds, the resulting compound is triiodothyronine    (T 3 ), a thyroid hormone with three iodines. Much more commonly, two copies of the second intermediary bond, forming tetraiodothyronine, also known as thyroxine    (T 4 ), a thyroid hormone with four iodines.

These hormones remain in the colloid center of the thyroid follicles until TSH stimulates endocytosis of colloid back into the follicle cells. There, lysosomal enzymes break apart the thyroglobulin colloid, releasing free T 3 and T 4 , which diffuse across the follicle cell membrane and enter the bloodstream.

Questions & Answers

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