Vasopressin, also known as antidiuretic hormone (ADH), is a neurohypophysial hormone found in most mammals. In most species it contains arginine and is thus also called arginine vasopressin (AVP) or argipressin. Its two primary functions are to retain water in the body and to constrict blood vessels.

Vasopressin regulates the body’s retention of water by acting to increase water reabsorption in the kidney’s collecting ducts, the tubules which receive the very dilute urine produced by the functional unit of the kidney, the nephrons.

Vasopressin is a peptide hormone that increases water permeability of the kidney’s collecting duct and distal convoluted tubule by inducing translocation of aquaporin-CD water channels in the plasma membrane of collecting duct cells. It also increases peripheral vascular resistance, which in turn increases arterial blood pressure. It plays a key role in homeostasis, by the regulation of water, glucose, and salts in the blood. It is derived from a preprohormone precursor that is synthesized in the hypothalamus and stored in vesicles at the posterior pituitary.

Most of vasopressin is stored in the posterior pituitary to be released into the bloodstream. However, some AVP may also be released directly into the brain, and accumulating evidence suggests it plays an important role in social behavior, sexual motivation and pair bonding, and maternal responses to stress. It has a very short half-life between 16–24 minutes.



One of the most important roles of AVP is to regulate the body’s retention of water; it is released when the body is dehydrated and causes the kidneys to conserve water, thus concentrating the urine and reducing urine volume. At high concentrations, it also raises blood pressure by inducing moderate vasoconstriction.

In addition, it has a variety of neurological effects on the brain, having been found, for example, to influence pair-bonding in voles. The high-density distributions of vasopressin receptor AVPr1a in prairie vole ventral forebrain regions have been shown to facilitate and coordinate reward circuits during partner preference formation, critical for pair bond formation.

A very similar substance, lysine vasopressin (LVP) or lypressin, has the same function in pigs and is often used in human therapy.


Vasopressin has three main effects by which it contributes to increased urine osmolarity (increased concentration) and decreased water excretion:

Increasing the water permeability of distal convoluted tubule and collecting duct cells in the kidney, thus allowing water reabsorption and excretion of more concentrated urine, i.e., antidiuresis. This occurs through increased transcription and insertion of water channels (Aquaporin-2) into the apical membrane of distal convoluted tubule and collecting duct epithelial cells.

Aquaporins allow water to move down their osmotic gradient and out of the nephron, increasing the amount of water re-absorbed from the filtrate (forming urine) back into the bloodstream. This effect is mediated by V2 receptors. Vasopressin also increases the concentration of calcium in the collecting duct cells, by episodic release from intracellular stores.

Vasopressin, acting through cAMP, also increases transcription of the aquaporin-2 gene, thus increasing the total number of aquaporin-2 molecules in collecting duct cells.
Increasing permeability of the inner medullary portion of the collecting duct to urea by regulating the cell surface expression of urea transporters, which facilitates its reabsorption into the medullary interstitium as it travels down the concentration gradient created by removing water from the connecting tubule, cortical collecting duct, and outer medullary collecting duct.

Acute increase of sodium absorption across the ascending loop of henle. This adds to the countercurrent multiplication which aids in proper water reabsorption later in the distal tubule and collecting duct.

Serum osmolarity/osmolality is also affected by vasopressin due to its role in keeping proper electrolytic balance in the blood stream. Improper balance can lead to dehydration, alkalosis, acidosis or other life-threatening changes. The hormone ADH is partly responsible for this process by controlling the amount of water the body retains from the kidney when filtering the blood stream.

Central Nervous System

Vasopressin released within the brain has many actions:

  • Vasopressin is released into the brain in a circadian rhythm by neurons of the suprachiasmatic nucleus.
  • It is likely that vasopressin acts in conjunction with corticotropin-releasing hormone to modulate the release of corticosteroids from the adrenal gland in response to stress, particularly during pregnancy and lactation in mammals.
  • Selective AVPr1a blockade in the ventral pallidum has been shown to prevent partner preference in prairie voles, suggesting that these receptors in this ventral forebrain region are crucial for pair bonding.
  • Recent evidence suggests that vasopressin may have analgesic effects. The analgesia effects of vasopressin were found to be dependent on both stress and sex.

One study has suggested that genetic variation in male humans affects pair-bonding behavior. The brain of males uses vasopressin as a reward for forming lasting bonds with a mate, and men with one or two of the genetic alleles are more likely to experience marital discord. The partners of the men with two of the alleles affecting vasopressin reception state disappointing levels of satisfaction, affection, and cohesion.

Vasopressin receptors distributed along the reward circuit pathway, to be specific in the ventral pallidum, are activated when AVP is released during social interactions such as mating, in monogamous prairie voles. The activation of the reward circuitry reinforces this behavior, leading to conditioned partner preference, and thereby initiates the formation of a pair bond.


Vasopressin is secreted from the posterior pituitary gland in response to reductions in plasma volume, in response to increases in the plasma osmolality, and in response to cholecystokinin (CCK) secreted by the small intestine.

The neurons that make AVP, in the hypothalamic supraoptic nuclei (SON) and paraventricular nuclei (PVN), are themselves osmoreceptors, but they also receive synaptic input from other osmoreceptors located in regions adjacent to the anterior wall of the third ventricle. These regions include the organum vasculosum of the lamina terminalis and the subfornical organ.

Many factors influence the secretion of vasopressin:

  • Ethanol (alcohol) reduces the calcium-dependent secretion of AVP by blocking voltage-gated calcium channels in neurohypophyseal nerve terminals in rats.
  • Angiotensin II stimulates AVP secretion, in keeping with its general pressor and pro-volumic effects on the body.
  • Atrial natriuretic peptide inhibits AVP secretion, in part by inhibiting Angiotensin II-induced stimulation of AVP secretion.


The main stimulus for secretion of vasopressin is increased osmolality of plasma. Reduced volume of extracellular fluid also has this effect, but is a less sensitive mechanism.

The AVP that is measured in peripheral blood is almost all derived from secretion from the posterior pituitary gland (except in cases of AVP-secreting tumours). Vasopressin is produced by magnocellular neurosecretory neurons in the Paraventricular nucleus of hypothalamus (PVN) and Supraoptic nucleus (SON).

It then travels down the axon through the infundibulum within neurosecretory granules that are found within Herring bodies, localized swellings of the axons and nerve terminals. These carry the peptide directly to the posterior pituitary gland, where it is stored until released into the blood. However, there are two other sources of AVP with important local effects:

  • AVP is also synthesized by magnocellular neurosecretory neurons at the PVN, transported and released at the median eminence, which then travels through the hypophyseal portal system to the anterior pituitary where it stimulates corticotropic cells synergistically with CRH to produce ACTH (by itself it is a weak secretagogue).
  • Vasopressin is also released into the brain by several different populations of smaller patterns.

Role In Disease

Lack Of AVP

Decreased AVP release (neurogenic – i.e. due to alcohol intoxication or tumour) or decreased renal sensitivity to AVP (nephrogenic, i.e. by mutation of V2 receptor or AQP) leads to diabetes insipidus, a condition featuring hypernatremia (increased blood sodium concentration), polyuria (excess urine production), and polydipsia (thirst).

Excess AVP

High levels of AVP secretion may lead to hyponatremia. In many cases, the AVP secretion is appropriate (due to severe hypovolemia), and the state is labelled “hypovolemic hyponatremia”. In certain disease states (heart failure, nephrotic syndrome) the body fluid volume is increased but AVP production is not suppressed for various reasons; this state is labelled “hypervolemic hyponatremia”.

A proportion of cases of hyponatremia feature neither hyper- nor hypovolemia. In this group (labelled “euvolemic hyponatremia”), AVP secretion is either driven by a lack of cortisol or thyroxine (hypoadrenalism and hypothyroidism, respectively) or a very low level of urinary solute excretion (potomania, low-protein diet), or it is entirely inappropriate. This last category is classified as the syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone (SIADH).

SIADH in turn can be caused by a number of problems. Some forms of cancer can cause SIADH, particularly small cell lung carcinoma but also a number of other tumors. A variety of diseases affecting the brain or the lung (infections, bleeding) can be the driver behind SIADH.

A number of drugs has been associated with SIADH, such as certain antidepressants (serotonin reuptake inhibitors and tricyclic antidepressants), the anticonvulsant carbamazepine, oxytocin (used to induce and stimulate labor), and the chemotherapy drug vincristine. It has also been associated with fluoroquinolones (including ciprofloxacin and moxifloxacin).

Anderson DA (2012)
Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (32nd ed.)
Elsevier. ISBN 978-1-4160-6257-8

Image: 3D model of arginine vasopressin.