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Homeostasis (from Greek: ὅμος, hómos, "equal"; and ιστημι, istēmi, "to stand" lit. "to stand equally"; coined by Walter Bradford Cannon) is the property of either an open system or a closed system, especially a living organism, that regulates its internal environment so as to maintain a stable, constant condition. Multiple dynamic equilibrium adjustment and regulation mechanisms make homeostasis possible. The concept was created by Claude Bernard, often considered as the father of physiology, and published in 1865.

Biological homeostasis

Further information: Human homeostasis

With regard to any given life system parameter, an organism may be a conformer or a regulator. Regulators try to maintain the parameter at a constant level over possibly wide ambient environmental variations. On the other hand, conformers allow the environment to determine the parameter. For instance, endothermic animals maintain a constant body temperature, while exothermic animals (ectotherms) exhibit wide body temperature variation. Examples of endothermic animals include mammals and birds, examples of exothermic (ectothermic) animals include reptiles and some sea animals.

This is not to say that conformers don't have behavioral adaptations allowing them to exert some control over a given parameter. For instance, reptiles often rest on sun-heated rocks in the morning to raise their body temperature. Vice versa, regulators are usually responsive to external circumstances: if the same sun-baked boulder happens to host a ground squirrel, its metabolism will adjust to the lesser need for internal heat production.

File:Wiki tarantula.jpg

Thermal image of a cold-blooded tarantula on a warm-blooded human hand

An advantage of homeostatic regulation is that it allows an organism to function effectively in a broad range of environmental conditions. For example, ectotherms tend to become sluggish at low temperatures, whereas a co-located endotherm may be fully active. That thermal stability comes at a price since an automatic regulation system requires additional energy. One reason snakes may eat only once a week is that they use much less energy to maintain homeostasis.

Most homeostatic regulation is controlled by the release of hormones into the bloodstream. However other regulatory processes rely on simple diffusion to maintain a balance.

Homeostatic regulation extends far beyond the control of temperature. All animals also regulate their blood glucose, as well as the concentration of their blood. Mammals regulate their blood glucose with insulin and glucagon. These hormones are released by the pancreas, the inadequate production of the two for any reason, would result in diabetes. The kidneys are used to remove excess water and ions from the blood. These are then expelled as urine. The kidneys perform a vital role in homeostatic regulation in mammals, removing excess water, salt, and urea from the blood. These are the body's main waste products.

Another homeostatic regulation occurs in the gut. Homeostasis of the gut is not fully understood but it is believed that TLR expression profiles contribute to it. Intestinal epithelial cells exhibit important factors that contribute to homeostasis: 1)They have different cellular distribution of TLR’s compared to the normal gut mucosa. An example of this is how TLR5 (activated by flagellin) can redistribute to the basolateral membrane which is the perfect place where flagellin can be detected.[1] 2)The enterocytes express high levels of TLR inhibitor Toll-interacting protein (Tollip). Tollip is a human gene that is a part of innate immune system and is highest in a healthy gut, it correlates to luminal bacterial load.[1] 3)Surface enterocytes also express high levels of Interleukin-1 receptor (IL-1R) -containing inhibitory molecule. IL-1R are also referred to as single immunoglobulin IL-1R (SIGIRR). Animals deficient of this are more susceptible to induced colitis, implying that SIGIRR might possibly play a role in tuning mucosal tolerance towards commensal flora.[1] Nucleotide-binding Oligomerization Domain containing 2 (NOD2) is suggested to have an affect on suppressing inflammatory cascades based on recent evidence.[1] It is believed to modulate signals transmitted through TLRs, TLR3, 4, and 9 specifically. Mutation of it has resulted in Crohn's disease. Excessive T-helper 1 responses to resident flora in the gut are controlled by inhibiting the controlling influence of regulatory T cells and tolerance-inducing dendritic cells.

Gut hormones such as ghrelin can also play a substantial role in energy homeostasis[2]. First, the release of gut hormones can modulate normal hunger and feeling of satiety. Second, gut hormones may reduce food intake in patients with specific gut diseases, possibly as an adaptation to reduce further stress on the gut. Third and finally, very high levels of gut hormones may be released to generate conditioned taste aversion and nausea in response to the ingestion of harmful substances.

Sleep timing depends upon a balance between homeostatic sleep propensity, the need for sleep as a function of the amount of time elapsed since the last adequate sleep episode, and circadian rhythms which determine the ideal timing of a correctly structured and restorative sleep episode.[3]

Control mechanisms

All homeostatic control mechanisms have at least three interdependent components for the variable being regulated: The receptor is the sensing component that monitors and responds to changes in the environment. When the receptor senses a stimulus, it sends information to a control center, the component that sets the range at which a variable is maintained. The control center determines an appropriate response to the stimulus. In most homeostatic mechanisms the control center is the brain. The control center then sends signals to an effector which can be muscles, organs or other structures that receive signals from the control center. After receiving the signal, a change occurs to correct the deviation by either enhancing it with positive feedback or depressing it with negative feedback [4]

Positive feedback mechanisms

Main article: Positive feedback
File:Positive feedback bistable switch.svg

Positive feedback is a mechanism by which an output is enhanced, such as protein levels. However, in order to avoid any fluctuation in the protein level, the mechanism is inhibited stochastically (I), therefore when the concentration of the activated protein (A) is past the threshold ([I]), the loop mechanism is activated and the concetration of A increases exponentially if d[A]=k [A]

Positive feedback mechanisms are designed to accelerate or enhance the output created by a stimulus that has already been activated.

Unlike negative feedback mechanisms that initiate to maintain or regulate physiological functions within a set and narrow range, the positive feedback mechanisms are designed to push levels out of normal ranges. To achieve this purpose, a series of events initiates a cascading process that builds to increase the effect of the stimulus. This process can be beneficial but is rarely used by the body due to risks of the acceleration becoming uncontrollable.

One positive feedback example event in the body is blood platelet accumulation, which, in turn, causes blood clotting in response to a break or tear in the lining of blood vessels. Another example is the release of oxytocin to intensify the contractions that take place during childbirth.[4]

Positive feedback can also be harmful. One particular example is when a fever causes a positive feedback within homeostasis that pushes the temperature continually higher. Body temperature can reach extremes of 45°C (113°F), at which cellular proteins denature, causing the active site in proteins to change, thus causing metabolism to stop, resulting in death.

Negative feedback mechanisms

Main article: Negative feedback

Negative feedback mechanism consists of reducing the output or activity of any organ or system back to it's normal range of functioning. A good example of this is regulating blood pressure. Blood vessels can sense resistance of blood flow against the walls when blood pressure increases. The blood vessels act as the receptors and they relay this message to the brain. The brain then sends a message to the heart and blood vessels, both are the effectors. The heart rate would decrease as the blood vessels increase in diameter. This change would result in the blood pressure to fall back to its normal range. The opposite would happen when blood pressure decreases.

Another important example is when the body is deprived of food. The body would then reset the metabolic set point to a lower than normal value. This would allow the body to continue to function, at a slower rate, even though the body is starving. Therefore people who deprive themselves of food while trying to lose weight, would find it easy to shed weight initially and much harder to lose more after. This is due to the body readjusting itself to a lower metabolic set point to allow the body to survive with its low supply of energy. Exercise can change this affect by increasing the metabolic demand.

Both feedbacks are equally important for the healthy functioning of ones body. Complications can arise if any of the two feedbacks are affected or altered in any way.

Homeostatic imbalance

Much disease results from disturbance of homeostasis, a condition known as homeostatic imbalance. As it ages, every organism will lose efficiency in its control systems. The inefficiencies gradually result in an unstable internal environment that increases the risk for illness. In addition, homeostatic imbalance is also responsible for the physical changes associated with aging. Even more serious than illness and other characteristics of aging, is death. Heart failure has been seen where nominal negative feedback mechanisms become overwhelmed, and destructive positive feedback mechanisms then take over.[4]

Diseases that result from a homeostatic imbalance include diabetes, dehydration, hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia, gout, and any disease caused by a toxin present in the bloodstream. All of these conditions result from the presence of an increased amount of a particular substance. In ideal circumstances, homeostatic control mechanisms should prevent this imbalance from occurring, but, in some people, the mechanisms do not work efficiently enough or the quantity of the substance exceeds the levels at which it can be managed. In these cases, medical intervention is necessary to restore the imbalance, or permanent damage to the organs may result.

Varieties of homeostasis

The Dynamic Energy Budget theory for metabolic organisation delineates structure and (one or more) reserves in an organism. Its formulation is based on three forms of homeostasis:

  • Strong homeostasis, wherein structure and reserve do not change in composition. Since the amount of reserve and structure can vary, this allows a particular change in the composition of the whole body (as explained by the Dynamic Energy Budget theory).
  • Weak homeostasis, wherein the ratio of the amounts of reserve and structure becomes constant as long as food availability is constant, even when the organism grows. This means that the whole body composition is constant during growth in constant environments.
  • Structural homeostasis, wherein the sub-individual structures grow in harmony with the whole individual; the relative proportions of the individuals remain constant.

Ecological homeostasis

Ecological homeostasis is found in a climax community of maximum permitted biodiversity, given the prevailing ecological conditions.

An example of a disturbed ecosystems or sub-climax biological communities was the island of Krakatoa after its major eruption in 1883: the established stable homeostasis of the previous forest climax ecosystem was destroyed and all life eliminated from the island. In the years after the eruption, Krakatoa went through a sequence of ecological changes in which successive groups of new plant or animal species followed one another, leading to increasing biodiversity and eventually culminating in a re-established climax community. This ecological succession on Krakatoa occurred in a number of stages; a sere is defined as "a stage in a sequence of events by which succession occurs". The complete chain of seres leading to a climax is called a prisere. In the case of Krakatoa, the island reached its climax community, with eight hundred different recorded species, in 1983, one hundred years after the eruption that cleared all life off the island. Evidence confirms that this number has been homeostatic for some time, with the introduction of new species rapidly leading to elimination of old ones.

The evidence of Krakatoa, and other disturbed or virgin ecosystems, shows that the initial colonization by pioneer or R strategy species occurs through positive feedback reproduction strategies, wherein species are weeds, producing huge numbers of possible offspring, but investing little in the success of any one. Rapid boom and bust plague or pest cycles are observed with such species. As an ecosystem starts to approach climax, these species get replaced by more sophisticated climax species, which, through negative feedback, adapt themselves to specific environmental conditions. These species, closely controlled by carrying capacity, follow K strategies, wherein species produce fewer numbers of potential offspring, but invest more heavily in securing the reproductive success of each one to the micro-environmental conditions of its specific ecological niche.

It begins with a pioneer community and ends with a climax community. This climax community occurs when the ultimate vegetation has achieved equilibrium with the local environment.

Such ecosystems form nested communities or heterarchies, in which homeostasis at one level contributes to homeostatic processes at another holonic level. For example, the loss of leaves on a mature rainforest tree creates space for new growth, and contributes to the plant litter and soil humus build-up upon which such growth depends. Of equal importance, a mature rainforest tree reduces the sunlight falling on the forest floor and helps prevent invasion by other species. But trees too fall to the forest floor, and a healthy forest glade is dependent upon a constant rate of forest regrowth, produced by the fall of logs, and the recycling of forest nutrients through the respiration of termites and other insect, fungal, and bacterial decomposers. In a similar manner, such forest glades contribute ecological services, such as the regulation of microclimates or of the hydrological cycle for an ecosystem, and a number of different ecosystems act together to maintain homeostasis, perhaps of a number of river catchments within a bioregion. A diversity of bioregions, in like manner, makes up a stable homeostatic biological region or biome.

In the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock stated that the entire mass of living matter on Earth (or any planet with life) functions as a vast homeostatic superorganism that actively modifies its planetary environment to produce the environmental conditions necessary for its own survival. In this view, the entire planet maintains homeostasis. Whether this sort of system is present on Earth is still open to debate. However, some relatively simple homeostatic mechanisms are generally accepted. For example, when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise, certain plants are able to grow better and thus act to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When sunlight is plentiful and atmospheric temperature climbs, the phytoplankton of the ocean surface waters thrive and produce more dimethyl sulfide, DMS. The DMS molecules act as cloud condensation nuclei, which produce more clouds, and thus increase the atmospheric albedo and this feeds back to lower the temperature of the atmosphere. As scientists discover more about Gaia, vast numbers of positive and negative feedback loops are being discovered, that, together, maintain a metastable condition, sometimes within very broad range of environmental conditions.

Reactive homeostasis

Example of use: "Reactive homeostasis is an immediate response to a homeostatic challenge such as predation."

However, any homeostasis is impossible without reaction - because homeostasis is and must be a "feedback" phenomenon.

The phrase "reactive homeostasis" is simply short for: "reactive compensation reestablishing homeostasis", that is to say, "reestablishing a point of homeostasis." - it should not be confused with a separate kind of homeostasis or a distinct phenomenon from homeostasis; it is simply the compensation (or compensatory) phase of homeostasis.

Other fields

The term has come to be used in other fields, as well.

Risk homeostasis

Main article: risk homeostasis

An actuary may refer to risk homeostasis, where (for example) people that have anti-lock brakes have no better safety record than those without anti-lock brakes, because the former unconsciously compensate for the safer vehicle via less-safe driving habits. Previous to the innovation of anti-lock brakes, certain maneuvers involved minor skids, evoking fear and avoidance: now the anti-lock system moves the boundary for such feedback, and behavior patterns expand into the no-longer punitive area. It has also been suggested that ecological crises are an instance of risk homeostasis in which behavior known to be dangerous continues until dramatic consequences actually occur.

Stress homeostasis

Sociologists and psychologists may refer to stress homeostasis, the tendency of a population or an individual to stay at a certain level of stress, often generating artificial stresses if the "natural" level of stress is not enough. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

Jean Francois Lyotard, a postmodern theorist, has applied this term to societal 'power centers' that he describes as being 'governed by a principle of homeostasis,' for example, the scientific hierarchy, which will sometimes ignore a radical new discovery for years because it destabilizes previously-accepted norms. (See "The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge" by J.F. Lyotard)

Waste homeostasis

Andrew Potter has used the term waste homeostasis in reference to the lack of net gain from energy-saving technologies.[5]

Conversational homeostasis

A 2007 study purported to find (and show clinically) conversational homeostasis in which overly-familiar people (such as spouses) condense their speech so much that they are actually worse at communicating novel information than strangers are, while not being conscious of this problem. [6]

Metabolic homeostasis

Some herbal medicines, known as adaptogens, have been defined to function as non-toxic metabolic regulators that can enhance metabolic homeostasis during stress.[7]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Ann M O'Hara, Fergus Shanahan The gut flora as a forgotten organ. EMBO reports 7, 688 - 693 (01 Jul 2006)
  2. Kevin G. Murphy, Stephen R. Bloom. Gut hormones and the regulation of energy homeostasis. Nature 444, (13 Dec 2006).
  3. Wyatt, James K., Ritz-De Cecco, Angela; Czeisler, Charles A.; Dijk, Derk-Jan (October 1999). Circadian temperature and melatonin rhythms, sleep, and neurobehavioral function in humans living on a 20-h day. Am J Physiol 277 (4): R1152–R1163. Fulltext.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Marieb, Elaine N. & Hoehn, Katja (2007). Human Anatomy & Physiology (Seventh ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.
  5. Potter, Andrew (2007), "Planet-friendly design? Bah, humbug.", MacLean's, vol. 120, no. 5, p. 14
  6. Keysar, Boaz (2007), "The Effect of Information Overlap on Communication Effectiveness", Cognitive Science
  7. Winston, David & Maimes, Steven. “ADAPTOGENS: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief,” Healing Arts Press, 2007.
Edit General subfields and scientists in Cybernetics
K1 Polycontexturality, Second-order cybernetics
K2 Catastrophe theory, Connectionism, Control theory, Decision theory, Information theory, Semiotics, Synergetics, Sociosynergetics, Systems theory
K3 Biological cybernetics, Biomedical cybernetics, Biorobotics, Computational neuroscience, Homeostasis, Medical cybernetics, Neuro cybernetics, Sociocybernetics
Cyberneticians William Ross Ashby, Claude Bernard, Valentin Braitenberg, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, George S. Chandy, Joseph J. DiStefano III, Heinz von Foerster, Charles François, Jay Forrester, Buckminster Fuller, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Francis Heylighen, Erich von Holst, Stuart Kauffman, Sergei P. Kurdyumov, Niklas Luhmann, Warren McCulloch, Humberto Maturana, Horst Mittelstaedt, Talcott Parsons, Walter Pitts, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Robert Trappl, Valentin Turchin, Francisco Varela, Frederic Vester, John N. Warfield, Kevin Warwick, Norbert Wiener
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