Adrenocorticotropin stimulation test: effects of basal cortisol level, time of day, and suggested new sensitive low dose test

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1991 Apr;72(4):773-8. doi: 10.1210/jcem-72-4-773.


Adrenal response to iv administration of 1-24 ACTH (250 micrograms) was examined in normal volunteers under various conditions. The effect of basal cortisol levels was examined by performing the tests at 0800 h with and without pretreatment with dexamethasone. The effect of time of day was evaluated by performing the tests at 0800 h and at 1600 h, eliminating possible basal cortisol influence by pretreatment with dexamethasone. In the first set of tests, despite significantly different baseline levels, 30-min cortisol levels were not different (618 +/- 50 vs. 590 +/- 52 nmol/L). Afternoon cortisol levels in response to ACTH were found to be significantly higher than morning levels at 5 min (254 +/- 50 vs. 144 +/- 36 nmol/L, p less than 0.01) and at 15 min (541 +/- 61 vs. 433 +/- 52 nmol/L, p less than 0.02). This difference in response was no longer notable at 30 min (629 +/- 52 and 591 +/- 52 nmol/L). We tried also to determine the lowest ACTH dose which will elicit a maximal cortisol response. No difference was found in cortisol levels at 30 and 60 min in response to 250 and 5 micrograms 1-24 ACTH. Using 1 micrograms ACTH, the 30-min response did not differ from that to 250 micrograms (704 +/- 72 vs. 718 +/- 55 nmol/L, respectively). However, the 60-min response to 1 microgram was significantly lower (549 +/- 61 vs. 842 +/- 110 nmol/L, p less than 0.01). Using this low dose ACTH test (1 microgram, measuring 30-min cortisol level), we were able to develop a much more sensitive ACTH test, which enabled us to differentiate a subgroup of patients on long-term steroid treatment who responded normally to the regular 250 micrograms test, but had a reduced response to 1 microgram. The stability of 1-24 ACTH in saline solution, kept at 4 C, was checked. ACTH was found to be fully stable after 2 hs in a concentration of 5 micrograms/ml in glass tube and 0.5 micrograms/ml in plastic tube. It was also found to be fully stable, both immunologically and biologically, for 4 months, under these conditions. We conclude that the 30-min cortisol response to ACTH is constant, unrelated to basal cortisol level or time of day. It is therefore the best criterion for measuring adrenal response in the short ACTH test. The higher afternoon responses at 5 and 15 min suggest greater adrenal sensitivity in the afternoon, but further studies are needed to clarify this issue.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Cosyntropin / administration & dosage
  • Cosyntropin / pharmacology*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Drug Stability
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Osmolar Concentration
  • Reference Values
  • Steroids / therapeutic use
  • Time Factors


  • Steroids
  • Cosyntropin
  • Hydrocortisone