prostaglandin (prŏsˌtəglănˈdən) [key], any of a group of about a dozen compounds synthesized from fatty acids in mammals as well as in lower animals. Prostaglandins are highly potent substances that are not stored but are produced as needed by cell membranes in virtually every body tissue. Different prostaglandins have been found to raise or lower blood pressure and regulate smooth muscle activity and glandular secretion. One such substance, which stimulates contraction of the uterus, is used clinically to induce labor; another has been in experimental use as a birth control agent. Prostaglandins also control the substances involved in the transmission of nerve impulses, participate in the body's defenses against infection, and regulate the rate of metabolism in various tissues. Several prostaglandins have been shown to induce fever, possibly by participating in the temperature-regulating mechanisms in the hypothalamus; they also play a part in causing inflammation. The fact that aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs have been shown to inhibit prostaglandin synthesis may account for their usefulness in reducing fever and inflammation. Many naturally occurring prostaglandins as well as many artificial forms have been synthesized in the laboratory.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.