High dose dexamethasone suppression testing has been widely employed in the differentiation between pituitary ACTH-dependent hypercortisolism [Cushing's disease (CD)] and the ectopic ACTH syndrome. We hypothesized that the high dose dexamethasone suppression test as it is performed in practice does not improve the ability to differentiate between these two types of ACTH-dependent Cushing's syndrome. Cases were drawn from 112 consecutive patients with ACTH-dependent Cushing's syndrome, who were then classified based upon results of inferior petrosal sinus sampling for ACTH levels. Analysis of test characteristics of high dose dexamethasone suppression testing was performed in the 73 patients for whom results are available. Statistical modeling was performed using the 68 cases with complete data on all assessed variables. Logistic regression models were used to predict the probability of pituitary-dependent Cushing's syndrome (CD) given the results of high dose dexamethasone suppression testing before and after adjustment for the contribution of a series of potential covariates. Of the 112 patients with ACTH-dependent Cushing's syndrome, 15.2% had the ectopic ACTH syndrome, and the remainder had pituitary-dependent Cushing's syndrome (CD). Patients with the ectopic ACTH syndrome were significantly older (mean, 51.9 vs. 40.2), were more likely to be male (58.8% vs. 27.4%), had shorter duration of clinical findings (mean, 11.6 vs. 39.9 months), were more likely to have hypokalemia (50% vs. 8.6%), had higher baseline 24-h urinary free cortisol [mean, 8317 vs. 1164 nmol/day (3015 vs. 422 microg)] and plasma ACTH levels [mean, 47 vs. 17 pmol/L (210 vs. 78 pg/mL)] and were less likely to suppress urinary free cortisol or plasma cortisol with high dose dexamethasone using the standard criterion of 50% or more suppression compared with patients with pituitary-dependent Cushing's syndrome. Based upon the standard criterion, the sensitivity and specificity of the high dose dexamethasone suppression test for the diagnosis of pituitary-dependent Cushing's syndrome were 81.0% and 66.7%, respectively. Although the mean percent suppression was significantly greater for patients with CD than for those with the ectopic ACTH syndrome (72.2% vs. 41.3%), the range of suppression was 0-99% for each diagnosis. The area under the receiver operating characteristic curve was 0.710 (95% confidence interval, 0.541-0.879). Logistic regression models were used to evaluate the probability of CD given the responsiveness to high dose dexamethasone suppression testing before and after adjustment for the potential contributions of other factors. A model including all of the variables (age, sex, duration, presence of hypokalemia, urinary free cortisol, and plasma ACTH) had a diagnostic accuracy of 92.7%. A model including all of these variables plus a binary variable indicating whether the patient met the criterion of suppression by 50% or more resulted in 95.6% accuracy, whereas substitution of this binary variable by percent suppression resulted in a model with 94.1% accuracy. There were no statistically significant differences among these models; their values for the c statistic, which is equivalent to the area under the curve in a receiver operating characteristic analysis, were all greater than 0.9. Logistic regression models indicate that the results of the dexamethasone suppression test add little to the differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent Cushing's syndrome, especially after taking other clinical information into account. In our patient population, the sensitivity and specificity of the dexamethasone suppression test were less than those reported by others. However, because 20-33% of cases of ectopic ACTH syndrome are misdiagnosed with these logistic regression models, other techniques are necessary to achieve greater diagnostic accuracy.