The pituitary glands of 33 patients (24 women and 9 men, 18 to 78 years old) who died in thyrotoxicosis (18 with Graves' disease and 15 with toxic multinodular goiter [Plummer's disease]) were examined by histologic and immunocytologic methods. Thirteen patients (39%) died in “thyroid storm.” The avidin-biotin-peroxidase complex immunostaining method was used to demonstrate the spectrum of pituitary hormones, including growth hormone, prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, thyrotropin, follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, and α-subunit. The most striking finding was a pronounced decrease or loss of immunoreactivity to thyrotropin in all thyrotoxic cases, a consistent change that allowed ready distinction of thyrotoxic from euthyroid pituitary glands. When immunoreactive thyrotrophs were identified, they were sparse and small and demonstrated only faint thyrotropin reactivity. No morphologic differences were noted between the pituitary glands of patients with Graves' disease or Plummer's disease or between sexes. Loss of thyrotropin immunoreactivity was found to be reversible in that thyrotropic cells in the pituitary glands of 16 additional concurrently studied patients, who had thyrotoxicosis but were treated and subsequently had normal thyroid function or hypothyroidism, appeared normal or even hyperplastic. Other types of adenohypophysial cells in both the thyrotoxic and the successfully treated groups exhibited no abnormalities. Pituitary adenomas were incidental findings in 6 of the 33 patients (18%). Their immunotypic spectrum included three prolactin-immunoreactive tumors, two growth hormone-containing adenomas (one of which was plurihormonal), and one tumor with follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone; no thyrotropin-containing adenomas were noted. No examples of pituitary hyperplasia were encountered in pituitary glands of thyrotoxic patients, and no hypophysitis or fibrosis was noted. We conclude that thyrotoxicosis exerts a profound effect on pituitary morphologic features that is identical in both Graves' disease and Plummer's disease. The reversible loss of thyrotropin immunoreactivity and involution of thyrotrophs are interpreted as exaggerated feedback effects of circulating thyroid hormones. Whether the suppressive effect is direct or mediated through the hypothalamus cannot be determined on the basis of this study.
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