The fundamental aspects of the hypothalamic luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH)1 pulse generator-pituitary gonadotrophin-gonadal apparatus in mammals have striking commonalities. There are, however, critical, substantive differences in the neuroendocrinology of puberty among species. The onset of puberty in the human is marked by an increase in the amplitude of LH pulses, an indirect indicator of the increase in amplitude of LHRH pulses. The hypothalamic LHRH-pituitary gonadotrophin complex is functional by at least 0.3 gestation in the human foetus; the sex difference in the fetal and neonatal pattern of LH and FSH secretion is an apparent consequence of imprinting of the fetal hypothalamus-pituitary-gonadotropin apparatus by fetal testosterone. Until about 6 months of age in boys and 12–24 months in girls, the testes and ovaries respond to the increased LH in boys and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) in girls by secreting testosterone and oestradiol, respectively, reaching levels that are not again achieved before the onset of puberty. Striking features of the ontogeny of the human hypothalamic pulse generator are: (1) its development and function in the foetus; (2) the continued function of the hypothalamic LHRH pulse generator-pituitary gonadotrophin-gonadal axis in infancy; (3) the gradual damping of hypothalamic LHRH oscillator activity during late infancy; (4) its quiescence during childhood – the so-called juvenile pause; (5) during late childhood the gradual disinhibition and reactivation of the LHRH pulse generator, mainly at night; (6) the increasing amplitude of the LHRH pulses, which are reflected in the progressively increased and changing pattern of circulating LH pulses, with the approach of and during puberty. The intrinsic central nervous system (CNS) mechanisms responsible for the inhibition of the LHRH pulse generator during childhood (the juvenile phase) involve the major role of an inhibitory neuronal system – the CNS inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and GABAergic neurons, as revealed by studies in the rhesus monkey by Terasawa and her associates. With the onset of puberty, the disinhibition and reactivation of the LHRH pulse generator is associated with a fall in GABAergic neurotransmission and a concomitant increase in the input of excitatory amino acid neurotransmitters (including glutamate) and possibly astroglial-derived growth factors. Despite remarkable progress over the past three decades, large gaps remain in our understanding of the neurobiological, genetic and environmental mechanisms involved in the control of the onset of puberty. The role of leptin in the control of the onset of puberty is reviewed. Severe leptin deficiency is associated with hypogonadotrophic hypogonadism; it appears that a critical level of leptin and a leptin signal is required to achieve puberty. The weight of evidence supports the hypothesis that leptin acts as one of several permissive factors and not a trigger in the onset of human puberty. The application of these advances provides a framework for the described classification of sexual precocity and delayed puberty.
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