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Hypothalamus – Definition, Structure, Functions

What is Hypothalamus?

  • The hypothalamus, derived from the Greek words meaning “under” and “bed,” is a vital component of the brain. Situated below the thalamus, it consists of various small nuclei that perform diverse functions. One of its primary roles is to establish a connection between the nervous system and the endocrine system by means of the pituitary gland. As part of the limbic system, the hypothalamus plays a crucial role in maintaining homeostasis and regulating numerous metabolic processes.
  • The hypothalamus, about the size of an almond in humans, plays a pivotal role in controlling the autonomic nervous system and various metabolic activities. It produces and releases specific neurohormones, known as releasing hormones or hypothalamic hormones, which influence the secretion of hormones from the pituitary gland. This intricate system allows the hypothalamus to regulate body temperature, hunger, thirst, fatigue, sleep, and circadian rhythms.
  • Comprised of various nuclei and nervous fibers, the hypothalamus is a small yet essential region of the brain. Its intricate neuronal connections are involved in a wide range of complex organismal functions. It maintains control over the vegetative system, ensuring the body’s homeostasis and thermoregulation. Additionally, it plays a role in modulating emotional behavior and is involved in crucial daily activities such as eating, drinking, and energy maintenance. The hypothalamus also contributes to the process of memory formation and exerts its influence on the endocrine system through its connections with the pituitary gland.
  • Understanding the functions of the hypothalamus requires a precise anatomical description and accurate characterization of its component structures. By unraveling the intricate workings of this region, researchers can gain valuable insights into the mechanisms that govern fundamental physiological processes, paving the way for advances in neuroscience and medical treatments.

Definition of Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is a small region of the brain located below the thalamus. It serves as a crucial link between the nervous system and the endocrine system, regulating various metabolic processes and controlling activities such as body temperature, hunger, thirst, sleep, and emotional behavior.

Embryological development of the hypothalamus

  • During embryological development, the hypothalamus undergoes a complex process of formation. At the end of the fourth week, the neural tube differentiates into primary vesicles: the forebrain vesicle (prosencephalon), midbrain vesicle (mesencephalon), and hindbrain vesicle (rhombencephalon). The prosencephalon further divides into the telencephalon, which forms the cerebral hemispheres, and the diencephalon, which gives rise to the hypothalamus. The mesencephalon develops into the midbrain involved in vision and hearing, while the rhombencephalon divides into the metencephalon (pons and cerebellum) and myelencephalon (medulla).
  • The classic understanding of hypothalamic development is based on the columnar morphologic model proposed by Herrick over a century ago. According to this model, the hypothalamus forms from the ventral part of the diencephalic vesicle, which is positioned between the telencephalon and the midbrain. However, recent research based on gene mapping has revealed a discrepancy between the traditional morphological boundaries and molecular markers.
  • According to Puelles’ Prosomeric model, the embryonic brain’s longitudinal axis becomes bent due to the first mesencephalic flexure. This reconfiguration places the diencephalon rostrally between the telencephalon and the caudally positioned midbrain. Consequently, the hypothalamus is recognized as a distinct posterior part of the forebrain, independent from the diencephalon.
  • The development of the hypothalamus is also influenced by specific signaling centers, such as the Wnt, Hedgehogs, and Bone morphogenetic protein families. These signaling centers play a crucial role in regulating cell proliferation and neurulation during hypothalamic development.
  • Understanding the embryological development of the hypothalamus and the molecular processes involved provides valuable insights into the formation of this essential brain region and its subsequent functions in regulating various physiological processes.

Structure of the hypothalamus

Schematic representation of hypothalamic nuclei (sagittal section).
Schematic representation of hypothalamic nuclei (sagittal section).
  • The hypothalamus exhibits a distinct structural organization, divided into different regions based on anatomical landmarks. The anterior horns of the fornix separate it into lateral, medial, and periventricular (median) regions, while a coronal plane passing through the infundibulum creates an anterior and posterior division. The prechiasmatic region refers to the anterior part located above the optic chiasm, while the posterior part is known as the mammillary region. The infundibular region lies between these two divisions.
  • From a structural perspective, the hypothalamus comprises gray matter, consisting of neuronal clusters organized into nuclei, and white matter, composed of myelinated nerve fibers.
  • The supraoptic area, situated in the anterior region above the optic chiasm, includes several nuclei such as the supraoptic, preoptic, medial preoptic, suprachiasmatic, anterior hypothalamic, and paraventricular nuclei. The supraoptic nucleus produces vasopressin (ADH), a hormone stored in the posterior pituitary gland that regulates blood pressure and water balance.
  • The preoptic region, along with the anterior hypothalamic nucleus, plays a role in cooling the body through sweating (thermoregulation), as well as in eating habits and reproduction. The medial preoptic region is involved in cardiovascular control in response to stress.
  • The suprachiasmatic nucleus, located above the optic chiasm, regulates circadian rhythms. The paraventricular nucleus, named after its proximity to the third ventricle, is an important autonomic center involved in stress and metabolism regulation.
  • The central part of the hypothalamus, known as the tuberal area, is positioned above the tuber cinereum and consists of an anterior and lateral portion. Within this area, there are nuclei such as the dorsomedial, ventromedial, paraventricular, supraoptic, and arcuate nuclei. The ventromedial area controls eating habits and the feeling of satiety. The arcuate or infundibular nucleus is responsible for the secretion of orexigenic peptides such as ghrelin, orexin, and neuropeptide Y.
  • The posterior region comprises a medial and lateral area. The medial region contains the mammillary nucleus, posterior hypothalamic nucleus, supramammillary nucleus, and tuberomammillary nucleus. The lateral region contains hypocretin (orexin) peptides that regulate feeding behavior, thermoregulation, gastrointestinal motility, cardiovascular regulation, and sleep.
  • Lesions in the lateral region can lead to a loss of appetite or aphagia. The posterior hypothalamic nucleus is involved in energy balance, blood pressure regulation, memory, and learning. It plays a major role in controlling body temperature. The tuberomammillary nucleus is associated with memory formation due to its connections with the hippocampus and the Papez memory circuit.
  • Understanding the distinct regions and nuclei within the hypothalamus provides insights into their specific functions and their involvement in various physiological processes such as thermoregulation, hormone secretion, feeding behavior, memory, and autonomic control.
Hypothalamus
Hypothalamus

Connections of the hypothalamus


The hypothalamus, despite its small size, has extensive connections with various cerebral structures, allowing it to participate in numerous regulatory processes within the body. Its connections play a crucial role in maintaining optimal bodily functions, controlling the endocrine system, metabolism, stress responses, and modulating behavior. Additionally, the hypothalamus is involved in maintaining homeostasis in terms of body temperature, blood pressure, fluid balance, and body weight.

The hypothalamus has connections with several important structures in the brain:

  1. The Midbrain: The ascending reticular activating system connects the reticular formation of the midbrain with the hypothalamic nuclei. The lateral mammillary bodies, tuberomammillary nuclei, and periventricular nuclei receive information through this connection. The reticular activating system is responsible for concentration, attention, and maintaining wakefulness. The hypothalamus receives information from the reticular formation via this system, as well as from the solitary tract nucleus.
  2. The Thalamus: The anterior hypothalamus is connected to the intralaminar nucleus and the nucleus of the median line. Lesions in the intralaminar group of nuclei have been associated with Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia. The mammillothalamic fascicle of Vicq d’Azyr connects the medial and lateral mammillary nuclei with the anterior part of the thalamus. Damage to this pathway can lead to memory loss.
  3. The Amygdala: The amygdala, located in the temporal lobe, is involved in the body’s response to fear, rewards, and memory. It has direct connections with the hypothalamus, either through the ventral amygdalofugal pathway or the stria terminalis.
  4. The Hippocampal Region: The hippocampus, part of the temporal lobe, is connected to the hypothalamus. Specifically, the infundibular and ventromedial nuclei of the hypothalamus receive connections from the CA1 and CA3 regions of the hippocampus. Recent studies have also highlighted the involvement of the CA2 region in memory and learning through its connections with the supramammillary nuclei of the hypothalamus.
  5. The Olfactory Bulb: Fibers from the olfactory bulb reach the periamygdaloid region and then the lateral hypothalamus, passing through the amygdala or the nucleus accumbens.
  6. The Retina: Visual information from the retina reaches the suprachiasmatic and supraoptic nuclei of the hypothalamus via the lateral geniculate body and the superior colliculus. These connections play a role in regulating circadian rhythm.
  7. The Cerebral Cortex: The hypothalamus and cerebral cortex have bidirectional connections. The hypothalamus projects diffuse information over the cortex, maintaining cortical tone, while the cortical gray matter sends fibers to the hypothalamus, triggering visceral responses based on affective states. The prefrontal cortex receives projections from the lateral hypothalamus, and the frontal lobe has efferent connections to all hypothalamic regions. Additionally, fibers from the paraorbital gyrus project into the paraventricular and ventromedial nuclei of the hypothalamus.

Furthermore, axons from the spinal cord can project into the hypothalamus through the spinohypothalamic tract, carrying pain and temperature information. The hypothalamus exerts its effects through two projections: the spinothalamic tract, which regulates sympathetic autonomic responses, and the mammillotegmental tract and dorsal longitudinal fasciculus, which carry information from the posterior hypothalamus. The anterior hypothalamus connects with the thalamus through the mammillothalamic tract and the fornix.

In summary, the hypothalamus is intricately connected with various cerebral structures, enabling it to receive and transmit information essential for regulating numerous physiological processes and maintaining the body’s overall balance and homeostasis.

Hormones Secreted by Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus, specifically the anterior region, plays a crucial role in hormone secretion. Various nuclei within this region are responsible for the production and release of important hormones that have widespread effects on the body. Here are some of the key hormones secreted by the hypothalamus:

  1. Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone (CRH):
    • CRH is responsible for regulating the body’s metabolic and immune responses.
    • It stimulates the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary gland, which in turn stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol, a stress hormone.
    • CRH is involved in the body’s response to stress and plays a role in inflammation and immune function.
  2. Thyrotropin Releasing Hormone (TRH):
    • TRH triggers the release of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) from the pituitary gland.
    • TSH then stimulates the thyroid gland to produce and release thyroid hormones, which are essential for the regulation of metabolism and the proper functioning of organs such as the heart, muscles, and brain.
  3. Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone (GnRH):
    • GnRH stimulates the pituitary gland to release gonadotropins, including luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).
    • LH and FSH are crucial for the regulation of reproductive functions in both males and females, including the maturation of eggs in females and the production of testosterone in males.
  4. Oxytocin:
    • Oxytocin is involved in several physiological processes.
    • It plays a key role in facilitating childbirth by stimulating contractions of the uterus.
    • Oxytocin is also important for lactation, as it stimulates the contraction of cells surrounding the milk-producing glands in the breasts, facilitating milk letdown.
    • Additionally, oxytocin is involved in social bonding, maternal behavior, and the regulation of sleep cycles and body temperature.
  5. Somatostatin:
    • Somatostatin, also known as Growth Hormone Inhibiting Hormone (GHIH), regulates the endocrine system.
    • It inhibits the release of growth hormone (GH) from the pituitary gland, thus modulating the growth and development of the body.
    • Somatostatin also affects neurotransmission and cell proliferation by interacting with specific receptors known as G-protein coupled receptors.

The middle region of the hypothalamus stimulates the release of Growth Hormone Releasing Hormone (GHRH). This hormone plays a major role in promoting the secretion of growth hormone from the pituitary gland. Growth hormone is essential for growth, development, and maintenance of various tissues and organs in the body.

These hormones secreted by the hypothalamus are involved in a wide range of physiological processes and play critical roles in maintaining overall health and homeostasis.

Hypothalamic Disorders

Hypothalamic disorders can occur when there are abnormalities or dysfunctions in the hypothalamus, leading to imbalances in hormone secretion and various physiological processes. Here are some common causes and symptoms of hypothalamic disorders:

Causes of Hypothalamic Disorders:

  1. Head injuries: Traumatic brain injuries that affect the hypothalamus can disrupt its normal functioning.
  2. Genetic disorders: Certain genetic conditions can result in abnormalities in the development or function of the hypothalamus.
  3. Tumors in the hypothalamus: Benign or malignant tumors that develop within the hypothalamus can interfere with hormone production and regulation.
  4. Disorders in eating: Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, can impact the hypothalamus due to extreme changes in food intake.
  5. Brain surgeries: Surgical procedures involving the brain, particularly those that involve the hypothalamic region, can potentially cause damage or disruption to its function.
  6. Autoimmune disorders: Certain autoimmune conditions can lead to inflammation or damage to the hypothalamus.

Symptoms of Hypothalamic Disorders:

  1. Body temperature fluctuations: Hypothalamic disorders can result in difficulties regulating body temperature, leading to episodes of excessive sweating, chills, or fluctuations in body temperature.
  2. Infertility: Hormonal imbalances caused by hypothalamic disorders can affect reproductive function, leading to difficulties with fertility and irregular menstrual cycles in women.
  3. Unusually high or low blood pressure: Dysregulation of blood pressure can occur in hypothalamic disorders, causing episodes of hypertension (high blood pressure) or hypotension (low blood pressure).
  4. Insomnia: Sleep disturbances, including difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep, can be a symptom of hypothalamic dysfunction.
  5. Change in appetite: Hypothalamic disorders can disrupt appetite regulation, leading to changes in food intake and appetite, such as increased or decreased hunger.
  6. Frequent urination: Disorders of the hypothalamus can impact the body’s fluid balance and result in increased urine production and frequent urination.
  7. Delayed puberty: Hormonal disruptions in the hypothalamus can delay the onset of puberty, leading to delayed sexual development in adolescents.

It is important to note that the symptoms and severity of hypothalamic disorders can vary depending on the underlying cause and individual factors. Diagnosing and managing these disorders often require a comprehensive evaluation by healthcare professionals and may involve treatments aimed at addressing the underlying cause and managing symptoms.

The hypothalamus plays a critical role in coordinating the release of hormones throughout the endocrine system, and any disruptions in its function can have significant effects on overall health and well-being.

Principal nuclei involved in neuroendocrine control of anterior pituitary and endocrine system

The hypothalamus plays a crucial role in the neuroendocrine control of the anterior pituitary gland and the regulation of the overall endocrine system. Several principal nuclei within the hypothalamus are involved in this control:

  1. Paraventricular Nucleus (PVN): The PVN is responsible for producing and releasing hormones that act on the anterior pituitary gland. It synthesizes and releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which stimulates the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the anterior pituitary. The PVN also produces oxytocin, which plays a role in reproductive functions and social bonding.
  2. Supraoptic Nucleus (SON): The SON synthesizes and releases antidiuretic hormone (ADH), also known as vasopressin. ADH acts on the kidneys to regulate water balance and prevent excessive water loss. The SON is involved in the control of fluid and electrolyte balance.
  3. Arcuate Nucleus (ARH): The ARH contains neurons that release various hormones called releasing and inhibiting factors, which regulate the secretion of hormones from the anterior pituitary. For example, the ARH produces gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which stimulates the release of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) from the anterior pituitary. These hormones are crucial for the regulation of reproductive functions.
  4. Ventromedial Nucleus (VMN): The VMN is involved in the control of appetite and metabolism. It plays a role in regulating energy balance and satiety signals. The VMN releases hormones that affect food intake and energy expenditure.
  5. Preoptic Nucleus (POA): The POA is involved in the regulation of body temperature and reproductive functions. It produces gonadotropin-inhibiting hormone (GnIH), which inhibits the release of gonadotropins from the anterior pituitary.

These principal nuclei within the hypothalamus produce and release hormones that act on the anterior pituitary gland to regulate the secretion of various hormones, including those involved in stress response, water balance, reproductive functions, and metabolism. The hypothalamic control of the endocrine system is a complex and tightly regulated process that maintains homeostasis in the body.

Functions of the hypothalamus

The hypothalamus, with its intricate connections and complex functions, plays a crucial role in various physiological processes and behaviors in the body. Some of the key functions of the hypothalamus include:

  1. Thermoregulation: The hypothalamus, particularly the preoptic nucleus, is responsible for maintaining the body’s temperature within normal ranges. It regulates heat loss behaviors such as sweating or vasodilation to cool down the body and heat production behaviors like vasoconstriction and thermogenesis to warm up the body.
  2. Regulation of food intake: The hypothalamus controls appetite and food intake through different nuclei, including the ventromedial, dorsomedial, paraventricular, and lateral hypothalamus. These nuclei either suppress or stimulate appetite, and disruption of their function can lead to abnormal eating behaviors such as hyperphagia or anorexia.
  3. Regulation of body water content: The hypothalamus controls water balance through the secretion of antidiuretic hormone (ADH) from the supraoptic nucleus. ADH acts on the kidneys to decrease urine production and promote water retention in cases of dehydration or blood volume loss.
  4. Autonomic nervous system control: The hypothalamus regulates both the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system. Different regions of the hypothalamus have excitatory effects on these systems, with the anterior region stimulating the sympathetic system and the posterior and lateral regions stimulating the parasympathetic system.
  5. Endocrine control: The hypothalamus plays a vital role in the regulation of the endocrine system through its connections with the pituitary gland. It releases various hormones, including thyrotropin-releasing hormone, gonadotropin-releasing hormone, corticotropin-releasing hormone, somatostatin, and dopamine, which control the secretion of hormones from the pituitary gland. These hormones are involved in growth, reproduction, metabolism, and overall homeostasis in the body.
  6. Reproduction: The hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis is responsible for reproductive functions. The hypothalamus releases gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which stimulates the production of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) from the pituitary gland. These hormones then act on the gonads (testes or ovaries) to regulate the production of sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, and influence sexual behavior.
  7. Circadian rhythm: The hypothalamus, particularly the photosensitive suprachiasmatic nucleus, is involved in the regulation of the circadian rhythm. It receives input from the retina and helps maintain the body’s internal clock, which is essential for maintaining normal physiological functions and overall well-being.

In summary, the hypothalamus serves as a vital integrative region of the brain, orchestrating various functions related to temperature regulation, food intake, water balance, autonomic control, endocrine regulation, reproduction, and circadian rhythm.

FAQ

What is the hypothalamus?

The hypothalamus is a small region in the brain located below the thalamus. It plays a vital role in regulating many physiological processes and behaviors in the body.

What are the functions of the hypothalamus?

The hypothalamus is involved in controlling body temperature, regulating appetite and food intake, managing water balance, controlling the autonomic nervous system, influencing the endocrine system, coordinating reproductive functions, and maintaining the circadian rhythm.

How does the hypothalamus regulate body temperature?

The hypothalamus receives temperature information from the body and responds by initiating mechanisms to increase or decrease body heat production, such as sweating or shivering, to maintain a stable body temperature.

How does the hypothalamus control appetite and food intake?

Different nuclei in the hypothalamus, such as the ventromedial and lateral hypothalamus, regulate appetite and food intake. These nuclei release specific hormones and neurotransmitters that either suppress or stimulate hunger and satiety signals.

What is the role of the hypothalamus in the endocrine system?

The hypothalamus produces and releases various hormones that regulate the function of the pituitary gland, which is often referred to as the “master gland” of the endocrine system. These hormones control the secretion of hormones from the pituitary gland, which in turn regulate other endocrine glands throughout the body.

How does the hypothalamus influence reproductive functions?

The hypothalamus releases gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which stimulates the production of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) from the pituitary gland. These hormones play a crucial role in the regulation of the menstrual cycle in females and the production of testosterone in males.

Can damage or dysfunction of the hypothalamus lead to health problems?

Yes, damage or dysfunction of the hypothalamus can result in various health problems, including disruptions in body temperature regulation, appetite and weight abnormalities, hormonal imbalances, reproductive issues, sleep disturbances, and disorders related to the autonomic nervous system.

How is the hypothalamus connected to the pituitary gland?

The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland are closely connected through a complex network of blood vessels and a hormonal pathway known as the hypothalamo-pituitary axis. Hormones released by the hypothalamus travel to the pituitary gland, where they stimulate or inhibit the release of specific hormones.

Can the hypothalamus affect emotions and behavior?

Yes, the hypothalamus has connections with areas of the brain involved in emotions and behaviors, such as the limbic system and the cerebral cortex. It can influence emotional responses, stress control, and certain behaviors through its regulatory actions on the autonomic nervous system and the release of hormones.

Can hypothalamic disorders be treated?

Treatment options for hypothalamic disorders depend on the specific condition and its underlying cause. They may include medication, hormone replacement therapy, surgery, or other targeted interventions aimed at managing the symptoms and restoring normal hypothalamic function to the extent possible.

References

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  2. Herrick CJ. The morphology of the forebrain in amphibia and reptiles. The Journal of Comparative Neurology. 1910;20:413-547
  3. Martinex-Ferre A, Martinez S. Molecular regionalization of the diencephalon. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2012;6:73
  4. Puelles L, Rubenstein JL. Forebrain gene expression domains and the evolving prosomeric model. Trends in Neurosciences. 2003;26:469-476
  5. Zhi-qi M, Xin-guang Y, Zhi-pei L, Jian-jun J, Long-sheng P, Ying H, et al. Deep brain stimulation for treatment of severe Alzheimer’s disease: Study protocol for prospective, self-controlled, phase I trial (case observation). Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Trials: Nervous System Diseases. 2017;2:66-71
  6. Stocker SD. Neurons in the organum vasculosum of the lamina terminalis contribute to salt-sensitive hyperthension. Hyperthension. 2017;70:A083
  7. Larkin S, Ansorge O. Developement and microscopic anatomy of the pituitary gland. [Updated 2017 Feb 15]. In: De Groot LJ, Chrousos G, Dungan K, et al., editors. Endotext [Internet]. South Dartmouth(MA): MDText.com, Inc; 2000. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK425703/
  8. Seralynne VD, Nelson AJD. The mammilary bodies and memory: More than a hippocampal relay. Progress in Brain Research. 2015;219:163-185
  9. Hong GK, Payne SC, Jane JA. Anatomy, physiology and laboratory evaluation of the pituitary gland. Otolaryngologic Clinics of North America. 2016;49(1):21-32
  10. Ferguson AV, Latchford JK, Samson WK. The paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus a potential target for integrative treatment of autonomic dysfunction. Expert Opinion on Therapeutic Targets. 2008;12(6):717-727
  11. Fassini A, Scopinho AA, Alves FHF, Fortaleza EAT, Correa FMA. The medial preoptic area modulates autonomic function under resting and stress conditions. Neuroscience. 2017;364:164-174. ISSN 0306-4522. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2017.09.026

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What is a digital colony counter? Why do Laboratory incubators need CO2? What is Karyotyping? What are the scope of Microbiology? What is DNA Library? What is Simple Staining? What is Negative Staining? What is Western Blot? What are Transgenic Plants? Breakthrough Discovery: Crystal Cells in Fruit Flies Key to Oxygen Transport
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