Living organisms represent, in essence, dynamic interactions of high complexity between membrane-separated compartments that cannot exist on their own, but reach behaviour in co-ordination. In multicellular organisms, there must be communication and co-ordination between individual cells and cell groups to achieve appropriate behaviour of the system. Depending on the mode of signal transportation and the target, intercellular communication is neuronal, hormonal, paracrine or juxtacrine. Cell signalling can also be self-targeting or autocrine. Although the notion of paracrine and autocrine signalling was already suggested more than 100 years ago, it is only during the last 30 years that these mechanisms have been characterised. In the anterior pituitary, paracrine communication and autocrine loops that operate during fetal and postnatal development in mammals and lower vertebrates have been shown in all hormonal cell types and in folliculo-stellate cells. More than 100 compounds have been identified that have, or may have, paracrine or autocrine actions. They include the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and γ-aminobutyric acid, peptides such as vasoactive intestinal peptide, galanin, endothelins, calcitonin, neuromedin B and melanocortins, growth factors of the epidermal growth factor, fibroblast growth factor, nerve growth factor and transforming growth factor-β families, cytokines, tissue factors such as annexin-1 and follistatin, hormones, nitric oxide, purines, retinoids and fatty acid derivatives. In addition, connective tissue cells, endothelial cells and vascular pericytes may influence paracrinicity by delivering growth factors, cytokines, heparan sulphate proteoglycans and proteases. Basement membranes may influence paracrine signalling through the binding of signalling molecules to heparan sulphate proteoglycans. Paracrine/autocrine actions are highly context-dependent. They are turned on/off when hormonal outputs need to be adapted to changing demands of the organism, such as during reproduction, stress, inflammation, starvation and circadian rhythms. Specificity and selectivity in autocrine/paracrine interactions may rely on microanatomical specialisations, functional compartmentalisation in receptor–ligand distribution and the non-equilibrium dynamics of the receptor–ligand interactions in the loops.