Neuroendocrine studies strongly suggest that the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system plays a crucial role in the development and course of depression. The interaction between the disease process and HPA system function in long-term course, however, is unclear. Since improvement of HPA system deterioration has been demonstrated to be associated with treatment response, the question has arisen whether the course of therapy response as reflected by, for example, early improvement or response (after 1 or 2 weeks of therapy) is also based on HPA system dysfunction and whether the course of HPA regulation during treatment is only a state marker or has additional predictive implications for long-term outcome. In order to elucidate these questions a long-term study was carried out to investigate whether HPA system disturbance is associated (1) with the course of treatment response, predominantly early treatment response, during acute depression and (2) with the long-term course of depression, i.e. number of episodes. Twenty patients with affective disorders who participated in earlier controlled antidepressant treatment studies over 6 weeks were enrolled in an exploratory follow-up study. Using the combined DEX/CRH test it was demonstrated that (1) early improvement, early treatment response and beneficial treatment outcome after 6 weeks were associated with a lower HPA system activity and that (2) in long-term course of depression the HPA system deterioration increases in parallel with the number of previous episodes. These findings suggest that HPA system alterations are closely related to treatment response and long-term outcome of depression.