Routine inferior petrosal sinus sampling in the differential diagnosis of adrenocorticotropin (ACTH)-dependent Cushing's syndrome: early recognition of the occult ectopic ACTH syndrome

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1991 Aug;73(2):408-13. doi: 10.1210/jcem-73-2-408.


The clinical, biochemical, and radiographic features of ectopic ACTH-dependent Cushing's syndrome are often indistinguishable from those of pituitary ACTH-dependent hypercortisolism (Cushing's disease). We prospectively evaluated 29 patients with ACTH-dependent hypercortisolism by means of bilateral inferior petrosal sinus ACTH sampling with ovine CRH (oCRH) stimulation. Patients with Cushing's disease (n = 20), had a maximal basal inferior petrosal sinus to peripheral ACTH ratio (IPS:P-ACTH) of 11.7 +/- 4.4 (+/- SE) from the dominant IPS, which increased to 50.8 +/- 18.3 after oCRH administration. Bilateral IPS sampling was necessary to correctly identify patients with Cushing's disease, since the maximal basal nondominant IPS:P-ACTH was less than 2.0 in over 50% of the patients and remained less than 2.0 after oCRH administration in one third. In contrast, patients with occult ectopic ACTH-secreting neoplasms (n = 9) had maximal basal IPS:P-ACTH of 1.2 +/- 0.1 that did not change after oCRH administration. Occult ectopic ACTH-secreting neoplasms were found in 7 of 9 patients from 0.4-14 yr after the recognition of Cushing's syndrome, and 4 of these patients had intermittent hypercortisolism with prolonged periods of remission. Selective endobronchial lavage for ACTH correctly localized a radiologically occult ACTH-secreting bronchial carcinoid in 1 patient, and magnetic resonance imaging identified a similar neoplasm in a patient with a normal chest computed tomographic scan. Basal ACTH and urinary free cortisol excretion were significantly higher in patients with ectopic ACTH than in those with Cushing's disease, but overlap existed between groups. High dose dexamethasone suppression testing inaccurately classified 24% of patients, and radiological imaging of the pituitary and adrenal glands was misleading. The occult ectopic ACTH syndrome is a common form of ACTH-dependent hypercortisolism that cannot be distinguished from Cushing's disease with routine clinical studies. The accurate differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent Cushing's syndrome requires bilateral inferior petrosal sinus ACTH sampling with oCRH stimulation.

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocortical Hyperfunction / blood
  • Adrenocortical Hyperfunction / diagnosis*
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / blood*
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone
  • Cushing Syndrome / blood
  • Cushing Syndrome / diagnosis*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged


  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone