Anterior pituitary function during critical illness and dopamine treatment

Crit Care Med. 1996 Sep;24(9):1580-90. doi: 10.1097/00003246-199609000-00024.


Objective: To summarize the available data on anterior pituitary function in critical illness and to focus on the endocrine effects of dopamine infusion. The analogy with anterior pituitary function in the elderly is highlighted, and the potential importance of these observations for recovery from critical illness is discussed.

Data sources: Computerized search of published research and reference list review.

Study selection: Review of 178 citations. Included are seven original studies on the effect of dopamine on pituitary function in adult and pediatric critical illness performed by the authors.

Data extraction: Studies on the endocrinology of illness, chronic stress, aging, and dopamine, or on the clinical importance of endocrine changes.

Data synthesis: The different pituitary axes are important determinants of normal anabolism and immune function. Continuously increased serum cortisol concentrations, insulin resistance, blunted prolactin release, and attenuated pulsatility of growth hormone and luteinizing hormone secretory patterns, as well as multiple anomalies in the thyroid axis, characterize the endocrine profile of prolonged critical illness. Dopamine, a natural catecholamine with hypophysiotropic properties, which has been used for more than two decades as an inotropic and vasoactive drug in intensive care, suppresses the circulating concentrations of all anterior pituitary-dependent hormones, except for cortisol. Available evidence suggests that the major effect of dopamine administration on the endocrine system is unlikely to be beneficial for the threatened metabolic and immunologic homeostasis of the severely ill patient. This pattern of hypopituitarism induced by chronic, severe illness and exogenous dopamine administration is reminiscent of the hormonal profiles obtained in experimental models of chronic stress, suggesting that endogenous dopamine may play a role in the endocrine and metabolic response to critical illness.

Conclusions: The dopamine-induced or aggravated pituitary dysfunction in critical illness warrants caution with prolonged infusion of this catecholamine as a so-called supportive agent, particularly in early life. The potential of combined hormonal therapy to improve the metabolic and immune status of the critically ill patient deserves thorough investigation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Critical Illness*
  • Dopamine / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Insulin / physiology
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I / physiology
  • Pituitary Gland, Anterior / drug effects*
  • Pituitary Gland, Anterior / physiology*
  • Pituitary Hormones, Anterior / physiology


  • Insulin
  • Pituitary Hormones, Anterior
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I
  • Dopamine