The effect of dexamethasone on the 24-hour profiles of adrenocorticotropin and cortisol in Cushing's syndrome

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1985 Mar;60(3):527-35. doi: 10.1210/jcem-60-3-527.


ACTH and cortisol are normally secreted episodically rather than continuously. This characteristic of episodic secretion is preserved in patients with Cushing's syndrome. To determine whether exogenous glucocorticoids modulate this pulsatility and to study its possible etiological implications, we obtained 24-h plasma cortisol profiles in seven patients with Cushing's syndrome (five Cushing's disease, one adrenal adenoma, and one bilateral adrenal cortical macronodular hyperplasia) before and during suppression with various doses of dexamethasone [low (0.5 mg, every 6 h), high (2 mg, every 6 h), and very high (4 mg, every 6 h)]. Simultaneous 24-h plasma ACTH profiles were obtained in two patients with Cushing's disease. Blood was drawn at 30-min intervals for 25 h. Individual profiles were analyzed to determine the 24-h mean level, the presence of a circadian component and its amplitude, and the number and magnitude of significant secretory pulses over the 24-h span. The concordance between significant ACTH and cortisol pulses also was quantified. Baseline values in patients were compared to those in seven normal subjects. Under basal conditions, the 24-h mean cortisol level was 3- to 4-fold higher than normal in all patients with Cushing's syndrome. In contrast, the basal 24-h mean ACTH level was normal in one, and slightly elevated in the other of the two patients with Cushing's disease in whom plasma ACTH concentrations were measured. However, in contrast to the normal subjects, all ACTH values were above 10 pg/ml even during the period of minimal secretion. Basal circadian variation in adrenocortical activity, albeit of reduced amplitude, was found in four of five patients with Cushing's disease; it was absent in the patient with adrenal adenoma. Low dose dexamethasone reduced the 24-h mean cortisol level and increased the amplitude of the circadian rhythm, unmasking a diurnal rhythm in the single patient with Cushing's disease in whom no significant circadian periodicity was present in the basal condition. This effect was further increased with the high dose of dexamethasone, which concomitantly reduced the number and increments of the secretory pulses. A lesser effect was found in the patient with bilateral nodular hyperplasia, and no effect was seen in the patient with adrenal adenoma. ACTH pulsatility, but not diurnal rhythm, also was dampened by dexamethasone. Reduction in the magnitude, but not the number, of ACTH secretory pulses by dexamethasone produced a reduced concordance ratio of ACTH with cortisol pulses of 0.39, compared to 0.64 in the basal state.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / blood*
  • Adult
  • Circadian Rhythm / drug effects
  • Cushing Syndrome / blood*
  • Dexamethasone / pharmacology*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged


  • Dexamethasone
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone