A rate-sensitive fast-feedback inhibition of stress-induced corticotropin secretion by glucocorticoids is well documented in rats. Studies in patients with Cushing's disease or adrenal insufficiency have also supported the existence of fast feedback in humans. However, few studies exist in normal healthy subjects or depressed patients. This study compared fast-feedback inhibition of beta-endorphin/beta-lipotropin secretion by hydrocortisone in 16 control subjects and 16 depressed patients. A fast-feedback effect of hydrocortisone on beta-endorphin/beta-lipotropin secretion during the hour of the hydrocortisone infusion was demonstrated in control subjects. Depressed patients demonstrated no increase in beta-endorphin/beta-lipotropin concentrations during the infusion. These data suggest a decreased sensitivity to glucocorticoid fast feedback in depressed patients and complement existing studies demonstrating decreased sensitivity to proportional feedback by dexamethasone in depressed patients. We believe the data presented herein are the first demonstration that abnormal feedback occurs at the level of the brain rather than pituitary in depressed patients.