An isolated luteinizing hormone (LH) deficiency is an uncommon condition. LH deficiency almost always occurs in conjunction with follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) deficiency because LH and FSH are secreted by the same pituitary gonadotrope cells. LH deficiency can manifest in females or males as delayed puberty, hypogonadism at any age, or reproductive abnormalities that can be dramatic or subtle. LH and FSH play central roles in the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis, and, thus, conditions related to LH and FSH deficiency can be caused by pathology of either the hypothalamus or pituitary. Careful analysis of the presenting problem, the patient’s overall health, and the hormonal profile is often necessary to determine the cause of LH deficiency and, thus, the most appropriate treatment.
Structure and genetics
LH is a glycoprotein dimer composed of 2 glycosylated noncovalently-linked subunits designated alpha and beta. The alpha subunit is composed of 92 amino acids and is encoded on the long arm of chromosome 6. The beta subunit is 121 amino acids and is encoded on the long arm of chromosome 19.
The alpha subunit of LH is biologically identical to 3 other hormones: FSH, thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). The beta subunit is unique and determines LH immunologic and biologic activity. The half-life of LH is 20 minutes. The hormone’s corresponding receptor is the LH receptor, and mutations of the LH receptor can lead to inactivity or over-activation of LH.
Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) is secreted by neurons in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus and released into the pituitary portal circulation. LH and FSH are produced by gonadotrope cells located in the anterior pituitary gland. The gonadotrope cells release LH and FSH in a pulsatile fashion approximately every hour when stimulated by GnRH. Once released into the systemic circulation, both LH and FSH stimulate the gonads of females and males to release steroid hormones.
In the female, LH stimulates the ovary to secrete estradiol, progesterone, and androgens in a cyclic manner and serves as the signal for ovulation. In the first half of the cycle (the follicular phase), LH primarily stimulates theca cells to produce androgens. These androgens are aromatized to estradiol in the granulosa cells of the maturing ovarian follicle under the influence of FSH. At mid cycle, estradiol has a positive feed-back effect on the hypothalamus, which triggers a dramatic spike in the release of LH. This LH surge initiates ovulation and the conversion of the mature follicle into the corpus luteum, which then produces progesterone primarily under the influence of LH.
During the second half of the cycle following ovulation (the luteal phase), LH continues to stimulate the corpus luteum to produce estradiol and progesterone. These steroid hormones act upon the endometrium to make it receptive to embryo implantation. If pregnancy occurs, placental trophoblasts secrete hCG, which stimulates the corpus luteum to continue production of estrogen and progesterone in support of the pregnancy. In the absence of pregnancy, decreasing LH levels cause corpus luteum regression approximately 2 weeks after ovulation. The consequential drop in progesterone results in menstruation.
In the male, both LH and FSH are required for spermatogenesis. LH stimulates Leydig cells to convert cholesterol to testosterone. Testosterone and FSH, in turn, modulate Sertoli cells, which serve as “nurse” cells for spermatogenesis within the lumen of the seminiferous tubules. Clinically, only FSH is used as a marker of testicular dysfunction.