Activin and inhibin

Activin and inhibin

Not to be confused with the agent that was referred to as 'inhibine' prior to its identification as hydrogen peroxide.
inhibin, alpha
Symbol INHA
Entrez HUGO OMIM RefSeq UniProt Locus q33-qter
inhibin, beta A
The Activin dimer, from 2ARV.pdb
Symbol INHBA
Alt. symbols activin A
Entrez HUGO OMIM RefSeq UniProt Locus p15-p13
inhibin, beta B
Symbol INHBB
Alt. symbols activin B
Entrez HUGO OMIM RefSeq UniProt Locus cen-q13
inhibin, beta C
Symbol INHBC
Alt. symbols activin C
Entrez HUGO OMIM RefSeq UniProt Locus q13
inhibin, beta E
Symbol INHBE
Alt. symbols activin E
Entrez HUGO OMIM RefSeq UniProt Locus q13.2

Activin and inhibin are two closely related protein complexes that have almost directly opposite biological effects. Activin enhances FSH biosynthesis and secretion, and participates in the regulation of the menstrual cycle. Many other functions have been found to be exerted by activin, including roles in cell proliferation, differentiation, apoptosis,[1] metabolism, homeostasis, immune response, wound repair,[2] and endocrine function. Conversely inhibin downregulates FSH synthesis and inhibits FSH secretion.[3]

Activin is a dimer composed of two identical or very similar beta subunits. Inhibin is also a dimer wherein the first component is a beta subunit similar or identical to the beta subunit in activin. However, in contrast to activin, the second component of the inhibin dimer is a more distantly-related alpha subunit.[4][5] Activin, inhibin and a number of other structurally related proteins such as anti-Müllerian hormone, bone morphogenetic protein, and growth differentiation factor belong to the TGF-β protein superfamily.[6]


The activin and inhibin protein complexes are both dimeric in structure, and, in each complex, the two monomers are linked to one another by a single disulfide bond.[7] In addition, both complexes are derived from the same family of related genes and proteins but differ in their subunit composition.[4] Below is a list of the most common inhibin and activin complexes and their subunit composition:

The alpha and beta subunits share approximately 25% sequence similarity, whereas the similarity between beta subunits is approximately 65%.[6]

In mammals, four beta subunits have been described, called activin βA, activin βB, activin βC and activin βE. Activin βA and βB are identical to the two beta subunits of inhibin. A fifth subunit, activin βD, has been described in Xenopus laevis. Two activin βA subunits give rise to activin A, one βA, and one βB subunit gives rise to activin AB, and so on. Various, but not all theoretically possible, heterodimers have been described.[8][9] The subunits are linked by a single covalent disulfide bond.

The βC subunit is able to form activin heterodimers with βA or βB subunits but is unable to dimerize with inhibin α.[10]



Activin is produced in the gonads, pituitary gland, placenta, and other organs:

  • Lack of activin during development results in neural developmental defects.


In both females and males, inhibin inhibits FSH production. Inhibin does not inhibit the secretion of GnRH from the hypothalamus (First Aid for the USMLE Step1, 2012 (McGraw Hill), page 534) However, the overall mechanism differs between the sexes:

In females

Inhibin is produced in the gonads, pituitary gland, placenta, corpus luteum and other organs.

FSH stimulates the secretion of inhibin from the granulosa cells of the ovarian follicles in the ovaries. In turn, inhibin suppresses FSH.

Inhibin secretion is diminished by GnRH, and enhanced by insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1).

In males

It is secreted from the Sertoli cells,[12] located in the seminiferous tubules inside the testes. Androgens stimulate inhibin production; this protein may also help to locally regulate spermatogenesis. [13]

Mechanism of action


As with other members of the superfamily, activins interact with two types of cell surface transmembrane receptors (Types I and II) which have intrinsic serine/threonine kinase activities in their cytoplasmic domains:

Activin binds to the Type II receptor and initiates a cascade reaction that leads to the recruitment, phosphorylation, and activation of Type I activin receptor. This then interacts with and then phosphorylates SMAD2 and SMAD3, two of the cytoplasmic SMAD proteins.

Smad3 then translocates to the nucleus and interacts with SMAD4 through multimerization, resulting in their modulation as transcription factor complexes responsible for the expression of a large variety of genes.


In contrast to activin, much less is known about the mechanism of action of inhibin, but may involve competing with activin for binding to activin receptors and/or binding to inhibin-specific receptors.[5]

Clinical significance

Quantification of inhibin A is part of the prenatal quad screen that can be administered during pregnancy at a gestational age of 16–18 weeks. An elevated inhibin A (along with an increased beta-hCG, decreased AFP, and a decreased estriol) is suggestive of the presence of a fetus with Down syndrome.[14] As a screening test, abnormal quad screen test results need to be followed up with more definitive tests.

It also has been used as a marker for ovarian cancer.[15][16]

Inhibin B may be used as a marker of spermatogenesis function and male infertility. The mean serum inhibin B level is significantly higher among fertile men (approximately 140 pg/mL) than in infertile men (approximately 80 pg/mL).[17] In men with azoospermia, a positive test for inhibin B slightly raises the chances for successfully achieving pregnancy through testicular sperm extraction (TESE), although the association is not very substantial, having a sensitivity of 0.65 (95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.56–0.74) and a specificity of 0.83 (CI: 0.64–0.93) for prediction the presence of sperm in the testes in non-obstructive azoospermia.[18]


External links

  • eMedicine Dictionary
  • Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)
  • Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)