In order for internal constancy to be maintained, the body must have sensors that are able to detect deviations from a set point. The set point is analogous to the temperature set on a house thermostat. In a similar manner, there is a set point for body temperature, blood glucose concentration, the tension on a tendon, and so on. When a sensor detects a deviation from a particular set point, it must relay this information to an integrating center, which usually receives information from many different sensors. The integrating center is often a particular region of the brain or spinal cord, but in some cases it can also be a group of cells in an endocrine gland. The relative strengths of different sensory inputs are weighed in the integrating center, which responds by either increasing or decreasing the activity of particular effectors—generally, muscles or glands.
The thermostat of a house can serve as a simple example. Suppose you set the thermostat at a set point of 70° F. If the temperature of the house rises sufficiently above the set point, a sensor within the thermostat will detect the deviation. This will then act, via the thermostat’s equivalent of an integrating center, to activate the effector. The effector in this case may be an air conditioner, which acts to reverse the deviation from the set point.
If the body temperature exceeds the set point of 37° C, sensors in a part of the brain detect this deviation and, acting via an integrating center (also in the brain), stimulate activities of effectors (including sweat glands) that lower the temperature. If, as another example, the blood glucose concentration falls below normal, the effectors act to increase the blood glucose. One can think of the effectors as “defending” the set points against deviations. Since the activity of the effectors is influenced by the effects they produce, and since this regulation is in a negative, or reverse, direction, this type of control system is known as a negative feedback loop.
A rise in some factor of the internal environment (⇑X) is detected by a sensor.
This information is relayed to an integrating center, which causes an effector to produce a change in the opposite direction (⇓X). The initial deviation is thus reversed, completing a negative feedback loop (shown by the dashed arrow and negative sign). The numbers indicate the sequence of changes.
The nature of the negative feedback loop can be understood by again referring to the analogy of the thermostat and air conditioner. After the air conditioner has been on for some time, the room temperature may fall significantly below the set point of the thermostat. When this occurs, the air conditioner will be turned off. The effector (air conditioner) is turned on by a high temperature and, when activated, produces a negative change (lowering of the temperature) that ultimately causes the effector to be turned off. In this way, constancy is maintained.
It is important to realize that these negative feedback loops are continuous, ongoing processes. Thus, a particular nerve fiber that is part of an effector mechanism may always display some activity, and a particular hormone, which is part of another effector mechanism, may always be present in the blood. The nerve activity and hormone concentration may decrease in response to deviations of the internal environment in one direction, or they may increase in response to deviations in the opposite direction. Changes from the normal range in either direction are thus compensated for by reverse changes in effector activity.
Since negative feedback loops respond after deviations from the set point have stimulated sensors, the internal environment is never absolutely constant. Homeostasis is best conceived as a state of dynamic constancy, in which conditions are stabilized above and below the set point. These conditions can be measured quantitatively, in degrees Celsius for body temperature, for example, or in milligrams per deciliter (one-tenth of a liter) for blood glucose. The set point can be taken as the average value within the normal range of measurements.
A fall in some factor of the internal environment (⇓X) is detected by a sensor.
Negative feedback loops maintain a state of dynamic constancy within the internal environment. The completion of the negative feedback loop is indicated by negative signs.