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Front Neuroendocrinol. 1994 Sep;15(3):231-74.

Osmoreceptors, osmoreception, and osmoregulation.

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  • 1Centre for Research in Neuroscience, Montreal General Hospital, P.Q., Canada.


Mammals have evolved sophisticated behavioral and physiological responses to oppose changes in the osmolality of their extracellular fluid. The behavioral approach consists of regulating the intake of salt and water through changes in sodium appetite and thirst. The physiological approach comprises adjustments of renal excretion of water and sodium which are achieved through changes in the release of antidiuretic and natriuretic hormones. Individually, these osmoregulatory responses are controlled by "osmoreceptors": groups of specialized nerve cells capable of transducing changes in external osmotic pressure into meaningful electrical signals. Some of these sensors are located in the region of the hepatic portal vein, a strategic site allowing early detection of the osmotic impact of ingested foods and fluids. Changes in systemic osmolality, however, are detected centrally, within regions that include the medial preoptic area, the median preoptic nucleus, the organum vasculosum lamina terminalis (OVLT), the subfornical organ, and the supraoptic nucleus (SON). While studies have indicated that these central and peripheral osmoreceptors participate in the control of osmoregulatory responses, little is known of the mechanisms by which this is achieved. One notable exception, however, consists of the osmotic control of electrical activity in SON neurons which, in the rat, contributes to the regulation of natriuresis and diuresis through effects on the secretion of oxytocin and vasopressin. Previous studies have shown that these cells are respectively excited and inhibited by hypertonic and hypotonic conditions. Experiments in vitro indicate that these responses result from both the endogenous osmosensitivity of these cells and changes in synaptic drive. Patch-clamp analysis has revealed that SON neurons are respectively depolarized and hyperpolarized by increases and decreases in external osmolality and that these intrinsic responses result from changes in the activity of mechanosensitive cationic channels. Moreover, intracellular recordings in hypothalamic explants have shown that changes in electrical activity are associated with proportional changes in the frequency of glutamatergic excitatory postsynaptic potentials derived from osmosensitive OVLT neurons. Both of these mechanisms, therefore, may participate in the osmotic regulation of neurohypophysial hormone release in situ.

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