Objective: To assess hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis function in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) not previously treated with glucocorticoids in relation to their inflammatory condition and in comparison to healthy controls.
Methods: We evaluated, in 10 premenopausal patients with RA and 7 age matched controls, plasma dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), its sulfate (DHEAS), and cortisol concentrations, together with inflammatory cytokine levels [interleukin 6 (IL-6) and IL-12], both in basal conditions and after stimulation with ovine corticotropin releasing hormone (oCRH) and with low dose intravenous (5 microg) adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).
Results: DHEA and DHEAS basal concentrations were found to be significantly lower (p<0.05) in premenopausal patients with RA than in controls. As expected, significantly higher basal levels of IL-6 and IL-12 (p<0.05) were found in patients with RA. After the low dose ACTH testing, the DHEA area under the curve value was found to be significantly lower (p<0.01) in patients than controls. Similar results, but without statistical significance, were observed after oCRH stimulation. DHEA levels at basal time showed a significant negative correlation with the erythrocyte sedimentation rate and platelet count, as well as with the Steinbrocker class of the disease (p<0.05). Normal plasma cortisol levels during oCRH and ACTH testing were found in patients with RA in spite of their inflammatory condition. After ACTH testing, IL-6 levels decreased significantly (p<0.05), whereas IL-12 levels were unchanged. No significant changes in IL-6 and IL-12 levels were found after oCRH testing.
Conclusion: The abnormal androgen concentrations observed during testing in patients with RA might support the implication of adrenal androgens in the immune/inflammatory cytokine mediated mechanisms involved in the pathophysiology and clinical aspects of RA.