Hormones cause changes in target cells by binding to specific cell-surface or intracellular hormone receptors, molecules embedded in the cell membrane or floating in the cytoplasm with a binding site that matches a binding site on the hormone molecule. In this way, even though hormones circulate throughout the body and come into contact with many different cell types, they only affect cells that possess the necessary receptors. Receptors for a specific hormone may be found on or in many different cells or may be limited to a small number of specialized cells. For example, thyroid hormones act on many different tissue types, stimulating metabolic activity throughout the body. Cells can have many receptors for the same hormone but often also possess receptors for different types of hormones. The number of receptors that respond to a hormone determines the cell’s sensitivity to that hormone, and the resulting cellular response. Additionally, the number of receptors available to respond to a hormone can change over time, resulting in increased or decreased cell sensitivity. In up-regulation, the number of receptors increases in response to rising hormone levels, making the cell more sensitive to the hormone and allowing for more cellular activity. When the number of receptors decreases in response to rising hormone levels, called down-regulation, cellular activity is reduced.
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