Responses to corticotropin-releasing hormone in the hypercortisolism of depression and Cushing's disease: Pathophysiologic and diagnostic implications

P. W. Gold, Donald (Lynn) Loriaux, A. Roy, M. A. Kling, J. R. Calabrese, C. H. Kellner, L. K. Nieman, R. M. Post, D. Pickar, W. Gallucci

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Primary depression can be associated with substantial hypercortisolism, thus prompting some researchers to suggest that depression shares pathophysiologic features with Cushing's disease. Clinically, depression can be difficult or impossible to distinguish from mild or early Cushing's disease that is associated with depressive features. The purpose of this study was to evaluate whether the pituitary-adrenal responses to ovine corticotropin-releasing hormone could help to clarify the mechanism of hypercortisolism in depression and in Cushing's disease and to assist in the differential diagnosis of these disorders. As compared with controls (n = 34), depressed patients (n = 30) had basal hypercortisolism (P <0.001) that was associated with attenuated plasma ACTH responses to ovine corticotropin-releasing hormone (P <0.001). This indicates that in patients with depression, the corticotroph cell; in the pituitary responds appropriately to the negative feedback of high cortisol levels. In contrast, patients with Cushing's disease (n = 29) had plasma ACTH hyperresponsiveness to ovine corticotropin-releasing hormone (P <0.001), despite basal hypercorticosolism (P <0.001), which indicates a gross impairment of the mechanism by which cortisol exerts negative feedback on the pituitary. Less than 25 percent of the patients with depression or Cushing's disease had peak ACTH responses that overlapped. We conclude that the pathophysiologic features of hypercortisolism in depression and Cushing's disease are distinct in each of the disorders and that the ovine corticotropin-releasing hormone stimulation test can be helpful in their differential diagnosis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1329-1335
Number of pages7
JournalNew England Journal of Medicine
Issue number21
Publication statusPublished - 1986
Externally publishedYes


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)

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