Background. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain in pituitary dwarfs has revealed a previously unknown entity: ectopia of the posterior pituitary (PPE), absence or hypoplasia of the pituitary stalk and hypoplasia of the anterior pituitary.

The pathogenesis of these findings was explained originally by a traumatic transection of the pituitary stalk during delivery. A high incidence of breech delivery has been reported in these groups, but the traumatic hypothesis cannot explain the findings in the relatively high percentage of patients with normal delivery, nor account for a different feature also found in other pituitary dwarfs consisting of pituitary hypoplasia with normal posterior pituitary. A second hypothesis could then been proposed, based on dysgenesis or abnormal embryonic development of both adenohypophysis and neurohypophysis.

Objective. To review the value and significance of these two different etiopathogenetic hypotheses by analyzing clinical, endocrinological, and MRI findings in a large population of pituitary dwarfs.

Methods. One hundred and one consecutive patients with congenital idiopathic growth hormone deficiency (CIGHD) were studied by MRI; they were compared with a control group of 46 healthy short children. A complete clinico-endocrinological evaluation was obtained in both patients and controls to assess the perinatal history, the pituitary-hypothalamic function, and the neurological status. MRI studies were evaluated both qualitatively and quantitatively and the pituitary volume (PV) was calculated in both patients and controls. Quantitative data were statistically analyzed to compare the mean PV of the patients with the mean PV of controls, the hormonal therapy, the single or multiple pituitary hormone deficiency, and the presence of breech delivery.

Results. MRI revealed PPE in 59 patients and a normal posterior pituitary (NPP) in 42. PV was extremely small in patients with PPE and in patients with NPP associated with a severely narrowed pituitary stalk; mean Pv was significantly lower in CIGHD patients when compared with that of healthy short children. PV was not influenced by hormonal therapy and did not differ between patients with single and multiple pituitary hormone deficiency and between patients with normal and breech delivery. PPE patients differed from NPP patients for a higher male/female ratio (3:1 vs 1:1) and for a greater frequency of multiple pituitary hormone deficiency (49% vs 12%), breech delivery (32% vs 7%), and associated congenital brain anomalies (12% vs 7%). In PPE patients breech delivery was strongly associated with multiple pituitary hormone deficiency.

Conclusion. On the basis of this study the traumatic hypothesis could theoretically explain the pathogenesis of PPE only in 32% of the patients with this condition. On the basis of modern understanding of embryogenesis of anterior and posterior pituitary, it is then justified to propose that a defective induction of mediobasal structure of the brain in the early embryo could account for both the complex morphological MRI abnormality and the clinico-endocrinological features encountered in all PPE patients. The close contiguity between the future pituitary and hypothalamus, the peculiar association with congenital midline brain anomalies, and the recent data about a possible role of Pit-1 gene, all support the hypothesis of a congenital defect. Finally, breech delivery can be considered not as a cause of PPE, but as an effect of the embryonic pituitary-hypothalamic abnormalities.

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