Disorders of the pituitary-adrenocortical axis
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis is a classic neuroendocrine system sub serving control of the adrenocortical glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid secretion by the brain . Pulsatile glucocorticoid production arises due to a subhypothalamic pulse generator and is the intrinsic property of the free-forward feedback interplay between the pituitary and adrenal glands. The pulsatile hormone signal is decoded at the ellular level by the intracellular glucocorticoid receptor (GR), the mineralocorticoid receptor (MR), or both GR and MR in cell types where the two are coexpressed. The adrenal cortex secretes cortisol under the control of pituitary adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and aldosterone under the control of angiotensin II and the K+ concentration in plasma.
The corticotropic cells of the anterior pituitary produce ACTH by proteolytic processing of proopiomelanocortin (POMC). The corticotropic cells are controlled by stimulatory hypothalamic factors (). The most potent of these is corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH). CRH stimulates the expression of the POMC gene and increases ACTH secretion through the G-protein coupled CRH receptor-1. Unlike the cells of the adrenal cortex, which require constant stimulation by ACTH, the corticotrophic cells of the anterior pituitary do not need to be stimulated continuously by CRH. Weak ACTH secretion is also stimulated by angiotensin/vasopressin and oxytocin through the V1b vasopressin receptor, also known as the V3 receptor .
Cells in the zona fasciculate of the adrenal cortex synthesize and secrete glucocorticoids in response to ACTH stimulation. Adrenal steroid production results from the binding of ACTH to the G-protein coupled melanocortin-2 receptor. ACTH plays an important role for the trophic support of the adrenal cortex. Chronic ACTH deficiency causes apoptosis and loss of secretory capacity of the adrenal cortex. Chronic ACTH stimulation, on the other hand, leads to hyperplasia of the zona fasciculate with an increase in size, cell number and secretory activity.
Cells in the zona glomerulosa of the adrenal cortex synthesize and secrete aldosterone. The enzyme aldosterone synthase converts corticosterone to aldosterone with intermediate production of 18-hydroxycorticosterone. These conversions are controlled by the renin angiotensin-II-system and the concentration of K+ in serum.
Adrenal corticosteroid steroids are essential for life and the maintenance and adaption of their biosynthesis is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis.
- Glucocorticoids (e.g. cortisol, corticosterone), 21 carbons; synthesis site adrenal cortex
- Mineralocorticoids (aldosterone, deoxycorticosterone), 21 carbons; synthesis site adrenal cortex
- Androgens, 19 carbons; the androgen precursors dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and androstenedione are synthesized in the adrenal cortex, in the testis testosterone is produced
- Estrogens, 18 carbons (); synthesis site ovary
- Prostagens (e.g., progesterone), 21 carbon steroids; synthesis site corpus luteum ().
- Through modification of bonds within the four fused rings; three cyclohexane (C6) rings and one cyclopentane (C5) ring
- By altering the locations of single and double bonds between the carbon atoms
- By oxidations and reductions at locations along the steroid backbone and at side chains.
Step 1: Cholesterol to precursors
- Cholesterol conversion to pregnenolone by side chain cleavage: key enzyme desmolase (P450scc), stimulated by ACTH
- Pregnenolone conversion to progesterone: key enzyme 3β-hydroxy steroid dehydrogenase; pregnenolone is the precursor of all steroids
- Progesterone is hydroxylated to 17-hydroxyprogeste- rone: key enzyme 17-hydroxylase (P450c17) encoded by the CYP17A1 gene; 17-hydroxyprogesterone is the precursor for the synthesis of cortisol and aldosterone
- 17-hydroxyprogesterone conversion to androstenedione and dehydroepiandrosterone; key enzyme 3β-hydroxy steroid dehydrogenase (P450c17) which also possesses 17,20 lyase activity; androstenedione is the precursor for the sex hormones estrone, testosterone and estradiol
Step 2: Cortisol synthesis from 17-hydroxyprogesterone
- 17-hydroxyprogesterone conversion to 11-deoxycortisol: key enzyme 21-hydroxylase (P450c21) a product of the CYP21A2 gene
- 11-deoxycortisol conversion to cortisol: key enzyme 11-hydroxylase encoded by the CYP11B1 gene
Step 3: Sex hormones from androstenedione
- Androstenedione conversion to estrone or to testosterone
Step 4: Aldosterone from progesterone
- Progesterone conversion to 11-deoxycorticosterone: key enzyme 21-hydroxylase (P450c21) encoded by the CYP21A2 gene
- 11-deoxycorticosterone conversion to corticosterone: key enzyme 11-hydroxylase, encoded by the gene CYP11B2
- Corticosterone converted to aldosterone; key enzyme aldosterone synthase encoded by CYP11B2.
The glucocorticoid receptors have a dual mode of action:
- As a transcription factor that binds to glucocorticoid response elements, both for nuclear and mitochondrial DNA
- As a modulator of other transcription factors.
- The low-capacity but higher affinity mineralocorticoid receptor (MR, or type I)
- The low-affinity, but higher capacity glucocorticoid receptor (GR, or type II).
The MR is present only in aldosterone target tissues (kidney, colon, certain brain regions) whereas the GR is distributed widely in peripheral tissues and brain regions. Cortisol binding to the MR is inhibited physiologically by action of the receptor associated 11β-hydroxy steroid dehydrogenase type 2, which converts cortisol and corticosterone to their inactive 11-dehydro forms ().
This mode reflects chronic exposure to glucocorticoids over days to weeks and affects both basal and stimulated hypothalamic-pituitary activity. High glucocorticoid plasma levels (Cushing’s syndrome, immunosuppressant glucocorticoid therapy) suppress ACTH and reduce its apoptotic effect on the adrenal cortex. Depending on the duration and the increased level of glucocorticoid exposure the renal insufficiency can take up a year to reverse .
This mode reflects stress induced activation of the corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) neurons within seconds. Fast feedback depends on the rate of glucocorticoid synthesis and does not require protein synthesis. ACTH is secreted by the pituitary in response to neuronal activity at the receptor signaling level.
This mode, also called delayed feedback, occurs within 30 min. to hours and can effect either adrenal or hypothalamic responses to stimulation. The response requires the synthesis of new proteins. At the hypothalamic level, CRH and vasopressin neurons are sensitive to glucocorticoid level responses.
In the absence of stress, the plasma glucocorticoid level varies according to a circadian rhythm. Concentrations reach their peak within 2–4 hours of waking and their nadir within 2–4 hours of going to sleep. With normal patterns of daily activity, peak levels are reached in the early morning and the nadir occurs at around 11:00 p.m. Peak levels result from increased hypothalamic and pituitary activity and increased adrenocortical sensitivity to ACTH. No hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical stimulation takes place at the nadir. Maintaining low glucocorticoid levels for 4–6 hours of the circadian nadir is important for avoiding the effects of glucocorticoid excess on peripheral tissues . Intake of food increases the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical activity, leading to an increase in glucocorticoid level.
In healthy individuals circadian hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical activity is disrupted by shifts in the activity cycle, sleep deprivation, and aging. Pathologic states alter the circadian rhythm in glucocorticoids (e.g., autonomic glucocorticoid secretion in Cushing’s syndrome). Hypopituitrism or pituitary insufficiency includes all these clinical conditions .
Glucocorticoids have a significant effect on glucose metabolism. The action of insulin is counter regulated by glucocorticoids. This can lead to hyperglycemia and insulin resistance. Glucocorticoids activate lipolysis in adipose tissue and exert a catabolic effect on muscle by inhibiting protein synthesis and activating proteolysis. Glucocorticoids also have an effect on the cardiovascular system by affecting myocardial contraction, vascular tone, and blood pressure.
Adrenal insufficiency is a condition characterized by inadequate glucocorticoid production owing to the destruction of the adrenal cortex or lack of ACTH stimulation. The diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency is made by demonstrating low basal or and/or stimulated serum cortisol. Investigations to establish the underlying etiology should follow.
- Primary adrenal insufficiency; lack of glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids are the features. Patients can present with an insidious onset of symptoms or acutely in adrenal crisis.
- Secondary insufficiency (ACTH deficiency) is a result of pituitary tumors, infiltrative diseases, head injury or congenital hypopituitarism; there is impaired stimulation of the adrenal cortex as a result of reduced ACTH stimulation
- Tertiary insufficiency; the hypothalamic CRH secretion is disturbed.
In the early morning sample at the time of maximal secretion (7.00–9.00), intact adrenocortical reserve can usually be confirmed with serum cortisol levels above 18 μg/dL (500 nmol/L) . In cases with adrenocortical insufficiency the serum cortisol concentration is less than 3–4 μg/dL (83–110 nmol/L). The exclusion of adrenocortical insufficiency for patients with intermediate cortisol levels (4–14 μg/dL; 110–390 nmol/L) requires further functional testing. According to a study using the an upper cutoff of 7.9 μg/dL (218 nmol/L) and a lower cutoff of 2.7 μg/dL (74 nmol/L) can reduce the number of individuals who need functional testing.
The ACTH test provides additional information if basal cortisol levels fall within the borderline range (). The test assess the functioning of the adrenal glands stress response and the adrenocortical glucocorticoid reserve (). The ACTH test leads to cortisol peak concentrations over the physiological peak . A low or no increase in cortisol in the ACTH test suggests the presence of primary adrenocortical insufficiency. The ACTH test may be normal in the case of recent onset secondary adrenocortical insufficiency. Due to its unsatisfactory sensitivity the ACTH test is not used in the first two weeks following pituitary surgery to assess the function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis.
Serum ACTH is determined if adequate stimulation was not achieved in the ACTH test (cortisol ≤ 18 μg/dL; 500 nmol/L) and a distinction needs to be made between primary and secondary adrenocortical insufficiency ().
If the ACTH level is decreased, secondary or tertiary adrenocortical insufficiency must be considered. The CRH test and the insulin hypoglycemia test can be used to clarify the diagnosis (). A lack of increase in ACTH in the CRH test suggests secondary adrenocortical insufficiency. An adequate rise in ACTH in the CRH test indicates tertiary adrenocortical insufficiency. If the patient has been receiving glucocorticoid therapy, this must be discontinued at least 24 h before the functional tests are performed /, /.
The clinical presentation of adrenal insufficiency depends on the tempo and extent of the loss of adrenal function. Common features are weight loss, anorexia, nausea, vomiting, lethargy and fatigue. Moderate plasma TSH elevation with normal FT4 is common at presentation and reflects lack of glucocorticoid inhibition of TSH release. Other laboratory abnormalities include moderate renal impairment, hypercalcemia mild normochromic anemia, eosinophilia and lymphocytosis .
In primary adrenal failure, features of mineralocorticoid insufficiency (postural hypotension, muscle cramps, abdominal discomfort and salt craving are more pronounced) . In acutely ill patients symptoms suggestive of primary adrenal insufficiency are volume depletion, hypotension, hyponatremia in 90% of cases, hyperkalemia in approximately 50% of cases, fever, abdominal pain, hyperpigmentation, or especially in children, hypoglycemia .
- Corticotropin stimulation test (Synacthen; ACTH1-24 stimulation: 250 μg for adults and children > 2 years of age, 15 μg/kg for infants and 125 μg for children < 2 years of age) iv (30 or 60 min. test)
- Peak levels < 500 nmol/L (18 mg/dL) at 30 or 60 minutes indicate adrenal insufficiency
- If the corticotropin stimulation test is not feasable a morning cortisol < 140 nmol/l (5 μg/dL) in combination with ACTH as preliminary test is suggestive of adrenal insufficiency
- Measurement of plasma ACTH. In patients with confirmed cortisol deficiency, a plasma ACTH > 2 fold the upper reference value is consistent with primary adrenal insufficiency.
- The simultaneous measurement of plasma renin and aldosterone in primary adrenal insufficiency to determine the presence of mineralocorticoid deficiency is recommended.
2. Schmidt IL, Lahner H, Mann K, Petersenn S. Diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency: evaluation of the corticotropin-releasing hormone test and basal serum cortisol in comparison to the insulin tolerance test in patients with hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal disease. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2003; 88: 4193–8.
4. Bornstein SR, Allolio B, Arlt W, Barthel A, Don-Wauchope A, Hammer GD, et al. .Diagnosis and treatment of primary adrenal insufficiency: an Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2016; 101: 364–89.
Glucocorticoids are secreted in relative high amounts from the zona fasciculate of the adrenal cortex under the control of ACTH. In primary hypercortisolism, the adrenal gland has increased secretory function with intact hypothalamic and pituitary function. Secondary hypercortisolism results from a corticotropin cell tumor of the pituitary gland and causes Cushing’s syndrome.
- Cortisol level in serum
- Urinary or salivary free cortisol
- Dexamethasone suppression test.
In the early morning sample at the time of maximal secretion (7.00–9.00), intact adrenocortical reserve can usually be confirmed with cortisol levels above 18 μg/dL (500 nmol/L). A characteristic feature of subclinical hypercortisolism and Cushing’s syndrome is the loss of the normal nocturnal cortisol nadir. A cortisol level of greater than 5 μg/dL (138 nmol/L) in the resting, supine patient should prompt further functional tests such as the 1 mg or 2 mg dexamethasone test or determination of free urinary cortisol in order to rule out the presence of hypercortisolism.
Urine free cortisol determination in a 24-hour urine collection is the mainstay of the diagnosis of hypercortisolism. Mild Cushing’s syndrome often results from small, but significant increases in nighttime cortisol secretion. Because most of the cortisol excretion during any 24-hour period is usually between 4 a.m. and 4 p.m., subtle cortisol increases require an adequate urine collection that must be verified with a measurement of urinary creatinine .
The test uses the sensitivity to glucocorticoid negative feedback to diagnose Cushing’s syndrome and pseudo-Cushing’s states in individuals with hypercortisolism.
1 mg dexamethasone test
A consensus statement recommended that patients who have plasma cortisol greater than 1.8 μg/dL (50 nmol/L) after overnight 1 mg dexamethasone administration merit further evaluation . Diagnostic sensitivity 95–98%, diagnostic specificity low.
Overnight 2 mg dexamethasone test
Cortisol suppression to less than 3 μg/dL (83 nmol/L) rules out hypercortisolism with a high degree of certainty.
Overnight 8 mg dexamethasone test
This test is performed on an inpatient basis. Blood is collected at midnight for the determination of cortisol and ACTH. Immediately afterward, 8 mg of dexamethasone is administered orally. When the serum cortisol concentration the following morning at 8:00 a.m. is less than 5 μg/dL (138 nmol/L), the presence of hypercortisolism is very unlikely. Higher concentrations together with a lack of suppression in the 2 mg dexamethasone test, indicate with high probability the presence of hypercortisolism.
The ACTH concentration prior to the dexamethasone administration at midnight and the cortisol level after the administration of 8 mg of dexamethasone the following morning will elucidate which type of hypercortisolism is present ():
- An elevated ACTH concentration suggests Cushing’s syndrome whereas a low or normal concentration suggests the presence of an adrenocortical tumor
- Cortisol suppression in the dexamethasone test suggests Cushing’s syndrome whereas a lack of cortisol suppression suggests ectopic ACTH syndrome or the presence of an adrenocortical tumor.
Steroid metabolome profiling
Some authors recommend metabolome profiling for diagnosis and sub typing patients with Cushing syndrome. Patients with different subtypes of Cushing’s syndrome show distinctive plasma steroid profiles that may offer a supplementary single-test alternative for screening purposes .
Cushing’s syndome is characterized by excess concentrations of circulating glucocorticoid, most commonly due to exogenous treatment, more rarely by upregulated excessive production of ACTH by a pituitary tumor (Cushing’s disease), by ectopic secretion of ACTH, by cortisol secreting adrenal cortical tumors, or by multiple hypersecreting nodules in both adrenal cortices (primary macronodular adrenocortical hyperplasia) .
- Increasing global prevalence of obesity and diabetes
- Increasing use of exogenous glucocorticoids, which cause a Cushing’s syndome phenotype
- The confusion caused by nonpathologic hypercortisolism not associated with Cushing’s syndome
- The difficulty identifying pathologic hypercortisolism when it is extrmely or cyclic or in renal failure
- Incidental adrenal masses
For the clinical assessment of hypercortisolism refer to:
1. Nieman LK, Biller BM, Findling JW, Murad MH, Newell-Price J, Savage MO, et al. The diagnosis of Cushing’s syndrome: an endocrine society clinical practice guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2008; 93: 1526–40.
4. Eisenhofer G, Masjkur J, Peitzsch M, Di Dalmazi G, Bidlingmaier M, Grüber M, et al. Pasma steroid metabolome profiling for diagnosis and subtyping patients with Cushing syndrome. Clin Chem 2018; 586–596.
7. Yanase T, Oki Y, Katabami T, Otsuki M, Kageyama K, Tanaka T, et al. New diagnostic criteria of adrenal subclinical Cushing’s syndrome: opinion from the Japan Endocrine Society. Endocrine Journal 2018; 65 (4): 383–93.
10. Mesotten D, Vanhorebeek I, van den Berghe G. The altered adrenal axis and treatment with glucocorticoids during critical illness. Nature Clinical Practice Endocrinology & Metabolism 2008; 4: 496–504.
12. Thevenot T, Borot S, Remy-Martin A, Sapin R, Cervoni JP, Richou C, et al. Assessment of adrenal function in cirrhotic patients using concentration of serum-free and salivary cortisol. Liver Int 2011; 31: 425–33.
16. Fassnacht M, Arlt W, Bancos I, Dralle H, Newell-Price J, et al. Management of adrenal incidentalomas: European Society of Endocrinology Clinical Practice Guideline in collaboratorium with thr European Network for the study of Adrenal Tumors. Eur J Endocrinol 2016; 175: G1-G34.
19. Vogg N, Kurlbaum M, DeutschbeinT, Gräsl B, Fassnacht M, Kroiss M. Method-specific cortisol and dexamethasone thresholds increase clinical specificity of the dexamethsone suppression test for cushing syndrome. Clin Chem 2021; 67 (7): 998–1007.
20. Kamenicky P, Droumaguet C, Salenave S, Blanchard A, Jublanc C, Gautier JF, et al. Mitotane, metyrapone, and ketoconazole combination therapy as an alternative to rescue adrenalectomy for severe ACTH-dependent Cushing’s syndrome. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2011; .
Cortisol represents about 80% of the 17-hydroxycorticosteroids in the blood. Approximately 90% of cortisol is bound to cortisol binding globulin (CBG), 7% to albumin, and the rest exists as free cortisol. Conditions that lead to a change in the CBG concentration also alter the total cortisol level in plasma. Only free cortisol is biologically active and can be determined in serum/plasma, urine, and saliva. Pulsatile cortisol production arises due to a subhypothalamic pulse generator and is the intrinsic property of the feed-forward feedback interplay between the pituitary and adrenal glands. The pulsatile hormone signal is decoded at the cellular level by the intracellular glucocorticoid receptor (GR), the mineralocorticoid receptor (MR), or both GR and MR in cell types where the two are coexpressed .
For diagnosing disorders of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis, the determination of total cortisol, here referred to as cortisol, is the parameter of choice.
- Diagnosis of hyper- and hypocortisolism
- Differential diagnosis of hyper- and hypocortisolism as marker of numerous functional tests.
Suspected Cushing’s syndrome, especially in patients with altered concentrations of steroid-binding globulin, as seen in conjunction with obesity, pregnancy, estrogen therapy, hormonal contraceptive use, hypothyroidism, anorexia nervosa, fasting, multiple myeloma, and nephrotic syndrome.
Cortisol (total cortisol)
Immunoassay: direct assays are employed, which do not require cortisol extraction from serum/plasma. Prior to the immunological determination, cortisol is released from protein binding by means of salicylic acid, 8-aniline-1-naphthol sulfonic acid, low pH, or heat. Monoclonal or polyclonal antibodies are used directed against protein conjugates of cortisol 21-hemisuccinate or cortisol 3-carboxy-methyloxime.
The determination of free cortisol in serum/plasma is technically demanding; therefore, free cortisol is determined preferentially in saliva or in urine.
Free cortisol in saliva: immunoassays for the determination of total cortisol can be used since cortisol occurs in saliva only in its free form.
Free cortisol in urine: can be determined using HPLC or immunoassay. Cortisol extraction is necessary since a greater quantity of cortisol metabolites and cortisol conjugates are present in urine. Cortisol is less water soluble than these substances and can therefore be extracted using dichloromethane or ethyl acetate. The extract is vaporized and solubilized in a buffer, followed by the determination of cortisol.
- Serum, heparin plasma: 1 mL
- Saliva collected on a piece of gauze inside the mouth for about 5 minutes: 0.1–1 mL
- Urine sample collected over a 24-hour period; cool temperatures are required during urine storage during the collection period to prevent the pH rising to greater than 7.5 as a result of bacterial growth: 5–10 mL
Basal cortisol levels are of limited clinical value because they are subject to individual variation and are strongly influenced by episodic cortisol secretion as well as by exogenous stimuli such as food intake, adiposity, physical and mental stress. Significant variation can also occur due to the pulsatile secretion patterns of ACTH .
It is important to consider that the nocturnal cortisol nadir may appear excessively high because of stress due to serious systemic illness or pain. The nocturnal cortisol nadir increases linearly with advancing age and during the eighth decade of life is often near the upper reference interval value . With advancing age, the increase in cortisol during the early morning occurs up to 2 h earlier, a fact that must be considered in the event of a delay in collecting blood samples.
Marked physically and mentally stressful situations during the day may influence cortisol secretion late into the night, thus causing falsely abnormal cortisol nadir levels . The circadian cortisol rhythm may also be abolished in conjunction with acute psychosis or serious systemic disease .
In individuals with hypercortisolism differentiation between pseudo-Cushing’s state must be distinguished from Cushing’s syndrome. The world wide prevalence of the metabolic syndrome among obese persons is estimated at 10%. The clinical picture of this syndrome is almost the same as the Cushing’s syndrome. The prevalence of undiagnosed Cushing’s syndrome is about 75 cases per 1 million population. The chance that a person with obesity, hypertension, hirsutism, type 2 diabetes, and dyslipidemia has Cushing’s syndrome is about 1 in 500 .
Free cortisol in saliva
The cortisol in saliva closely corresponds to that of free, biologically active cortisol in plasma and is independent of salivary flow. Unlike plasma cortisol, the concentration of salivary cortisol is not influenced by changes in the concentration of cortisol binding globulin. Salivary cortisol determinations are also suited for use in functional tests. An increased salivary cortisol concentration late in the evening (e.g., at 11:00 p.m.) increases the suspicion of hypercortisolism .
Free cortisol in urine
The determination of free cortisol in urine is a reliable method for the detection of hypercortisolism if based on the correct collection of a 24-hour urine sample /, /. Free urinary cortisol is elevated in patients with any type of Cushing’s syndrome but not in adipose individuals or in patients with elevated estrogen concentrations. With a threshold value of 55 μg (153 nmol)/24 h, the diagnostic sensitivity and specificity for a diagnosis of Cushing’s syndrome are 100% and 73%, respectively. With a threshold value of 100 μg (276 nmol)/24 h, the diagnostic sensitivity and specificity are both 94% .
- Mild Cushing’s syndrome often results from low level but nevertheless significant cortisol secretion from 4:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. and may not be recognized based on a urine sample collected over 24 hours. Adequate urine collection that must be verified with a measurement of urinary creatinine is required.
- Renal function and fluid intake are important factors associated with cortisol excretion. High fluid intake causes increased glomerular filtration of cortisol and reduced renal metabolism of the filtered cortisol, which results in increased urine cortisol excretion. For example, increased urinary excretion of free cortisol is observed in 76% of individuals who have a daily fluid intake of around 5 liters .
- If renal insufficiency is present, more cortisol is metabolized and cortisol excretion can be normal even in the presence of Cushing’s syndrome. Cortisol excretion is also increased in pseudo-Cushing’s states such as those that occur in association with endogenous depression, alcoholism, and eating disorders.
The question of whether the cortisol concentration collected in a random blood sample during the day is of diagnostic value for the diagnosis of hypocortisolism when compared to the ACTH test is important because it is often not possible to conduct an ACTH test in outpatients. According to a study a cortisol level of greater than 15 μg/dL (420 nmol/L) has the same diagnostic sensitivity and specificity as the ACTH test for excluding adrenocortical insufficiency and a level of less than 5.1 μg/dL (142 nmol/L) has the same sensitivity and specificity for confirming the diagnosis.
Immunoassays for the determination of cortisol exhibit cross reactivity with other corticosteroids. The cross reactivity rate is 1–5% for 11-deoxycortisol and corticosterone and above 20% for prednisolone . The latter is converted into prednisone in the tissues. In patients on prednisolone therapy, the determination of cortisol cannot be performed by immunoassay. In patients who are being treated with metyrapone for a pituitary adenoma, cortisol determination should not be performed using immunoassay since the high concentrations of 11-deoxycortisol produce falsely high cortisol levels.
Biological influence factors
Blood should not be collected postprandially because food intake leads to a mean increase in cortisol after one hour of 90% if the food is eaten at lunch time and about 50% if it is eaten in the evening .
Storage is possible at 22 °C or 4 °C for 4 days.
2 Ching SYL, Lim EM, Beilby J, Bhagat C, Rossi E, Walsh JP, Pullan P. Urine free cortisol analysis by automated immunoassay and high-performance liquid chromatography for the investigation of Cushing’s syndrome. Ann Clin Biochem 2006; 43: 402–7.
4 Schmidt IL, Lahner H, Mann K, Petersenn S. Diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency: evaluation of the corticotropin-releasing hormone test and basal serum cortisol in comparison to the insulin tolerance test in patients with hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal disease. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2003; 88: 4193–8.
8. Lin CL, Wu TJ, Machcek DA, Jiang NS, Kao PC. Urinary free cortisol and cortisone determined by high performance liquid chromatography in the diagnosis of Cushing’s syndrome. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1997; 82: 151–5.
11. Murphy BEP. Some studies of the protein-binding of steroids and their application to the routine micro and ultramicro measurement of various steroids in body fluids by competitive protein binding-assay. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1967; 27: 973–90.
12. Owen S, Haslam S, Adaway JE, Wood P, Glenn G, Keevil BG. A simplified liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry assay using on-line solid-phase extraction, for the quantitation of cortisol in saliva and comparison with a routine DELFIA method. Ann Clin Biochem 2010; 47: 131–6.
19. Görges R, Knappe G, Gerl H, Ventz M, Stahl F. Diagnosis of Cushing’s syndrome: re-evaluation of midnight plasma cortisol vs urinary free cortisol and low dose dexamethasone suppression test in a large patient group. J Endocrinol Invest 1999; 22: 241–9.
Within the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system the paraventricular nucleus are a group of densely packed neurons that are highly responsive to external physiological stimuli. These cells project to the capillaries of the median eminence, where they secrete corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and arginine-vasopressin (AVP) into the portal system and thence pituitary corticotrophs to regulate adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) secretion .
ACTH and related peptides are derived by proteolytic cleavage of the glycoprotein proopiomelanocortin (POMC) . POMC has a molecular weight of 32 kDa and is cleaved by the enzyme pro hormone convertase 1 in the pituitary into an N-terminal glycopeptide (N-POC), joining peptide (JP), ACTH, and a C-terminal fragment called β-lipotrophin (βLPH). In addition to ACTH, the ACTH precursors POMC and pro-ACTH are present in the circulation at concentrations about 5 times greater than ACTH. The plasma concentrations are as follows :
- POMC: 5–33 pmol/L
- Pro-ACTH: 5–33 pmol/L
- N-POC: 5.6–16.8 pmol/L
- β-LPH: 2.5–6.7 pmol/L
- ACTH: 0.9–11.3 pmol/L
- β-endorphin: ≤ 1.7 pmol/L.
Amino acids 1–18 are responsible for the biological activity of ACTH, while amino acids 19–39 influence its half life. ACTH has a half life of 8–14 minutes, depending on whether it is determined by an immunoassay or a bioassay. The half life is shorter if it is determined by immunoassay.
In comparison to ACTH, POMC is relatively inactive while pro-ACTH exhibits comparable activity. It is not known, however, whether both bind to the ACTH receptor (MC-2R). ACTH precursors can be found in patients with ectopic ACTH syndrome due to small cell lung cancer. These ACTH precursors only stimulate cortisol synthesis if they are present in high concentrations or be cleaved to ACTH in the circulation.
- Differential diagnosis of hypercortisolism: the diagnosis must first be established by cortisol determination and/or corresponding functional tests
- Differential diagnosis of adrenocortical insufficiency
- Suspected ectopic ACTH secretion (e.g., hypokalemia and metabolic alkalosis) in the case of a known underlying tumor; in any case of small cell lung cancer even without clinical signs of hypercortisolism
- Follow-up of patients after surgical treatment for pituitary dependent Cushing’s syndrome.
The two site immunoassay relies on two antibodies binding to different epitopes of ACTH. One antibody is bound to a solid phase; the other is free in solution and labeled with an enzyme or a luminescent tracer. One antibody is directed against the amino terminal end of ACTH 1–39 (e.g., amino acids 1–17) while the other is directed against the carboxy terminal region (e.g., amino acids 34–39). The immunometric assay therefore detects only intact ACTH molecules. The detection limit is 0.6–9 ng/L (0.12–2 pmol/L) .
Usually, polyclonal antibodies that are directed against an epitope against the N-terminal region of the molecule, are employed. The test detects intact ACTH and biologically active ACTH fragments as well as parts of POMC. The detection limit is 10–20 ng/L (2.2–4.4 pmol/L). The radioimmunoassay is not suitable for measuring low ACTH concentrations .
EDTA plasma, lithium heparin plasma: 1 mL
Data expressed in ng/L (pmol/L). Conversion: ng/L × 0.2202 = pmol/L
In patients with hypercortisolism, a low ACTH plasma level suggests the presence of an adrenocortical tumor while a normal or increased level suggests a pituitary cause or the presence of an ectopic ACTH syndrome. ACTH determination cannot be used to differentiate between secondary Cushing’s syndrome and ectopic ACTH syndrome since the ACTH concentrations in these two conditions overlap.
ACTH determination is not suitable for diagnosing Addison’s disease. However, when adrenocortical insufficiency is detected, an increased ACTH level suggests an underlying adrenal cause whereas a normal or reduced concentration suggests a pituitary cause.
Biological influence factors
ACTH secretion is pulsatile; the mean pulse frequency in a 24-hour period is 10 for women and 18 for men and the mean peak amplitude is 10.3 ng/L (2.3 pmol/L) for women and 16.8 ng/L (3.7 pmol/L) for men . This pulsatile secretion is superimposed on a circadian rhythm, with a secretory maximum between 6:00 and 8:00 a.m.
For blood sampling plastic tubes containing EDTA or heparin should be used, since ACTH is strongly adsorbed by glass surfaces. Whole blood should be centrifuged within 4 hours of sample collection.
Method of determination
Immunometric assays with monoclonal antibodies have higher analytical specificity for ACTH than competitive binding assays such as the radioimmunoassay. Immunometric assays, however, are not suitable for measuring the ACTH related peptides that occur in high concentration of ectopic ACTH syndrome. For ACTH related peptides, the radioimmunoassay appears to be the least specific of all assays because the assay is dependent on the detection of a single epitope present on the ACTH N-terminal region .
- National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (United Kingdom), MRC 74/555; 6.2 IU per 25 μg ACTH 1-39
- National Hormone and Pituitary Program (Baltimore); 4.71 IU per 50 μg ACTH 1-39.
1. Lightman SL, Birnie MT, Conway-Campbell BL. Dynamics of ACTH and cortisol secretion and implications for disease. Endocr Rev 2020; 41 (3): 470–90.
4. Horrocks PM, Jones AF, Ratcliffe WA, Holder G, White A, Holder R, et al. Patterns of ACTH and cortisol pulsatility over twenty-four hours in normal males and females. Clin Endocrinol 1990; 32: 127–34.
6. Janzen N, Peter M, Sander S, Steuerwald U, Terhardt M, Holtkamp U, Sander J. Newborn screening for congenital adrenal hyperplasia: additional steroid profile using liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2007; 92: 2581–9.
The vast majority of hyperandogenism due to deregulation of androgen secretion are:
- The congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) due to steroid 21-hydroxylase deficiency
- The polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) that results from functional ovarian hyperandrogenism.
The first tier screening-test is the determination of 17-hydroxy progesterone (17-OHP) im Plasma.
- Screening of congenital adrenal hyperplasia
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome.
In many countries the screening for 21-hydroxylase deficiency is incorporated into newborn screening programs, using a two-tier protocol (initial immunoassay with further evaluation positive tests by liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometry).
- Immunoassay with measurement of the time resolved immunofluorescence assay (TRIFA)
- Liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry LC-MS/MS (gold standard method) .
- For CAH immunoassays to measure 17-OHP in dried blood spots are employed
- Serum: 1 mL
The morbidities of congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) and of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) will be discussed.
CAH is a group of autosomal recessive disorders characterized by impaired cortisol synthesis. The most common form of CAH is caused by mutations in the gene CYP21A2 encoding the steroid 21-hydroxylase (P450c21) an adrenal enzyme that converts 17-OHP to 11-deoxycortisol and progesterone to deoxycorticosterone, respective precursors for cortisol and aldosterone .
- In the classic salt-wasting and simple virilizing forms of CAH the block of cortisol synthesis leads to corticotropin stimulation of the adrenal cortex with accumulation of cortisol precursors that are diverted to androgen biosynthesis leading to the virilizing form of CAH. About 75% of classic CAH patients suffer from aldosterone deficiency, neonatal salt loss and potentially fatal hypovolemia. Besides the salt-wasting form, the virilizing form of classic CAH has apparently normal aldosterone synthesis. Adrenal enzymatic deficiency causing hyperandrogenic symptoms presents later than the form with salt loss. The peri- and postpubertal onset of hyperandrogenism in females develops secondary to 21-hydroxylase deficiency.
- The non classic mild form of CAH shows variable degrees of postnatal androgen excess but is sometimes asymptomatic.
The clinical symptoms of adrenal hyperplasia directly result from either the deficiencies in mineralocorticoid or glucocorticoid production or from overproduction of adrenal androgens. Mineralocorticoid deficiency leads to renal salt wasting, androgen excess causes virilization of females and glucocorticoid deficiency has many clinical ramifications .
The gold standard for diagnosis of CAH is the measurement of 17OH progesterone (17-OHP) after ACTH (cosyntropin) stimulation . The test employs a pharmacologic dose of 0.125–0.25 mg cosyntropin, which maximally stimulates the adrenal cortex ().
If a diagnosis is highly probable on the basis of ambiguous genitalia in girls, and markedly elevated 17-OHP levels at neonatal screening, and/or electrolyte abnormalities in either sex, treatment should be instituted immediately without waiting for the results of the ACTH stimulation test .
- In infants with positive newborn screens for CAH referral to pediatric endocrinolologist and evaluation by cosyntropin (ACTH) stimulation testing
- In symptomatic individuals past infancy an early-morning (before 8 a.m.) baseline 17-OHP measurement by LC-MS/MS.
- In patients with borderline 17-OHP levels a complete adrenocortical profile after a cosyntropin stimulation to differentiate 21-hydroxylase deficiency from other enzyme defects (e.g., 17-OHP, cortisol, deoxycorticosterone, 11-deoxycortisol, 17OH pregnenolone, dehydroepiandrosterone).
- In individuals with CAH genotyping is suggested only when results of the adrenocortical profile after a cosyntropin stimulation test are equivocal, or cosyntropin stimulation cannot be accurately performed (i.e., patient receiving glucocorticoid), or for purposes of genetic counseling.
Children with CAH are steroid dependent for life, and the goal of daily maintenance treatment is to replace deficient levels of cortisol and/or aldosterone while minimizing androgen excess, preventing virilization, optimizing growth, and protecting fertility. If children are prescribed excess hydrocortisone, side effects can include growth suppression and obesity. If the dose of hydrocortisone is insufficient, children are at a high risk for precocious puberty and adrenal crisis /, /.
Monitoring treatment by consistently timed hormone measurements is recommended . Serum 17-OHP and androstendione are the traditional indicators of the adequacy of glucocorticoid treatment. Complete suppression of 17-OHP concentration is not a treatment goal but instead indicates over treatment. Androstendione levels should be referenced to age- and sex-specific norms. Acceptably treated patients with CAH generally have upper normal to mildly elevated 17-OHP and androstendione levels when measured in a consistent manner.
PCOS is the result from functional ovarian hyperandrogenism due to deregulation of androgen secretion. Approximately two thirds of cases have functionally typical PCOS (PCOS-T) in which there is hypersensitivity to LH, characterized by hyper responsiveness of 17-OHP to a GnRH test or hCG test. The remaining one third of PCOS is functionally atypical (PCOS-A) lacking functional hyper responsiveness of 17-OHP. This is a heterogenous group, most of which have atypical functional ovarian hyperandogenism, in which ovarian androgen excess is indicated by a dexamethasone suppression test .
The PCOS-A is demonstrated directly by the GnRH test or the hCG test.
In the GnRH test leuprolide acetate 10 ug/kg sc (or a comparable dose of any other short-acting GnRH) stimulates endogenous LH and FSH release that peaks after 3–4 hours and persists 24 hours; this in turn stimulates the increased secretion of sex steroids and their precursors, with serum levels peaking at 18–24 hours. In the absence of a steroidogenic block, an elevated 17-OHP response higher than 152 ng/dL (4.6 nmol/L) is typical for PCOS-A .
In the hCG test exogenous administration of hCG 3,000 IU/m2 causes maximal stimulation of theca-interstitial cells and steroid secretion peaks at 24 hours. In the absence of a steroidogenic block, an elevated 17-OHP response higher than 152 ng/dL (4.6 nmol/L) is typical for PCOS .
The short dexamethasone suppression test (short DAST) indicates functionally atypical PCOS (PCOS-A) lacking functional hyper responsiveness. Dexamethasone 0.25 mg/m2 is administered per os at 12 noon and a blood sample is collected at 4.00 h p.m. Dexamethasone rapidly suppresses adrenal testosterone and cortisol. Levels of total testosterone higher than 26 ng/mL (7.5 nmol/L) and cortisol below 5 ug/dL (138 nmol/L) suggests PCOS-A .
17-OHP shows marked diurnal and menstrual cycle dependent variations. In adult females blood samples should be obtained between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. and during the follicular phase.
Poor predictive value newborn screening
The high number of false positive screening tests for CAH is due to the fact that the 17-OHP concentration is high at birth and declines sharply in the first 2 days of life. In neonates with CAH, however, the concentration continues to increase. Newborn females have lower levels than newborn males. Pre term infants and healthy newborns under stress show elevated levels.
At 22 °C and 4 °C for up to 4 days.
17-OHP is a progestogen synthesized in the adrenal gland (molecular weight of 330 Da). The concentration increases together with LH during the menstrual cycle and reaches a peak at ovulation. 17-OHP is produced by the hydroxylation of progesterone, catalyzed by 17-hydroxylase. 17-OHP accumulates in 21-hydroxylase deficiency () is therefore the main biomarker used to diagnose this disorder.
Androgenization is associated with a spectrum of visible clinical manifestations that commonly include hirsutism, alopecia, and acne. The endocrine glands physiologically secrete the five androgens dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS), androstenedione, testosterone, and androstenediol (). Androstenediol binds to both androgen receptors and estrogen receptors.
The vast majority of enzyme deficiencies causing hyperandrogenic symptoms are:
- 21-hydroxylase (CYP21A2) mutations in 90% of cases. 21-hydroxylase, a cytochrome P450 enzyme, converts 17-OHP to 11-deoxycortisol and progesterone to 11-deoxycorticosterone. As 11-deoxycortisol and 11-deoxycorticosterone are precursors for cortisol and aldosterone, respectively, loss of enzyme activity results in deficiencies in both of these corticoids and in the accumulation of 17-OHP, the most important endocrine biomarker for diagnosing this enzyme deficiency. More than 100 CYP21A2 mutations are known, but large deletions and a splicing mutation (intron 2,-13 from splice acceptor site, C-G substitution) that ablate enzyme activity comprise about 50% of classic CAH alleles. Because many patients are compound heterozygote for two or more different mutant CYP21A2 alleles, a wide spectrum of phenotypes are observed .
- 11β-hydroxylase (CYP11A1 mutations) in 5–8% of cases. This results in accumulation of 11-deoxycorticosterone and 11-deoxycortisol (steroid precursors with weak mineralocorticoid activity). Severe virilization occurs due to overproduction of androstenedione with enhanced conversion to testosterone.
- 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (HSD3B2 mutations) in less than 5% of cases. The synthesis pathways for cortisol and aldosterone are disrupted, with subsequent diversion of steroid precursors toward androgen synthesis.
- 17-hydroxylase (CYP17A1 mutations) in only about 125 known cases. In this rare defect, the production of cortisol and adrenal androgens is reduced and steroid precursors are diverted toward aldosterone synthesis. 17-hydroxylase deficiency can manifest almost exclusively at puberty or thereafter.
1. Gonzalez RR, Mäentausta O, Solyom J, Vihko R. Direct solid phase time-resolved fluoroimmunoassay of 17-hydroxyprogesterone in serum and dried bood spots on filter paper. Clin Chem 1990; 36: 1667–72.
2. Janzen N, Peter M, Sander S, Steuerwald U, Terhardt M, Holtkamp U, Sander J. Newborn screening for congenital adrenal hyperplasia: additional steroid profile using liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2007; 92: 2581–9.
6. Speiser PW, Arlt W, Auchus RJ, Baskin LS, Conway GS, Merkr DP, et al. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to steroid 21-hydroxylase deficiency: an Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2018; 103: 4043–88.
10. Janzen N, Peter M, Sander S, Steuerwald U, Terhardt M, Holtkamp U, Sander J. Newborn screening for congenital adrenal hyperplasia: additional steroid profile using liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2007; 92: 2581–9.
13. Speiser PW, Arlt W, Auchus RJ, Baskin LS, Conway GS, Merke DP, et al. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to steroid 21-hydroxylase deficiency; an Endocrine Society Clinical practice Guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2018; 103 (11): 4043–88.
17-hydroxypregnenolone is an intermediate in the biosynthesis of steroid hormones secreted by the gonads and adrenal cortex. 17-hydroxypregnenolone is produced by the hydroxylation of pregnenolone at the C17 position, catalyzed by the enzyme 17-hydroxylase. It has a molecular weight of 332 Da and is a pro hormone of DHEA. Refer to .
In the presence of hirsutism and suspicion of CAH:
- Diagnosis of 3β-hydroxy steroid dehydrogenase (3β-HSD) deficiency
- Diagnosis of 17-hydroxylase deficiency.
Plasma: 1 mL
17-hydroxypregnenolone in plasma is almost entirely of adrenal origin and is elevatedin newborn screening for 21-hydroxylase deficiency . The mean plasma concentration of 17-hydroxypregnenolone in men is 1.9 μg/L and in women 3.5 μg/L .The mechanism where by plasma 17-hydroxypregnenolone levels are elevated in patients with 21-hydroxylase deficiency is unknown . Acute stimulation with ACTH causes negligible changes in the plasma levels of the hormone. The ratio of 17-hydroxypregnenolone to 17-OHP can be useful for the diagnosis of 3β-HSD deficiency mediated CAH ().
11-deoxycorticosterone, also known as deoxycorticosterone (DOC) or 21-hydroxyprogesterone is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland that possesses mineralocorticoid activity and acts as a precursor to aldosterone. 11-deoxycorticosterone is produced from progesterone by 21-hydroxylase in the adrenal gland. 11-deoxycorticosterone has weak mineralocorticoid and no glucocorticoid activity. Addition of a 11-hydroxyl group produces glucocorticoid activity, yet further hydroxylation at C18 leads to the mineralocorticoid aldosterone.
In the zona fasciculata, 11β-hydroxylase converts 11-deoxycortisol and 11-deoxycorticosterone to cortisol and corticosterone, respectively, and is regulated by ACTH.
Cells in the zona glomerulosa of the adrenal cortex synthesize and secrete aldosterone. The enzyme aldosterone synthase converts corticosterone to aldosterone with intermediate production of 18-hydrocycorticosterone. These conversions are controlled by the renin angiotensin-II-system and the concentration of K+ in serum.
The homologous enzymes, 11β-hydroxylase and aldosterone synthase are encoded by the CYP11B1 and CYP11B2 genes, respectively.
- Mineralocorticoid excess symptoms of unknown origin
- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) due to 11β-hydoxylase deficiency
- Glucocorticoid-remediable aldosteronism.
Radioimmunoassay following extraction and chromatography.
Serum: 1 mL
24-hour urine collection, using boric acid as a preservative (0.1 g/100 mL); send the entire urine collection to the laboratory or measure the volume and send 10 mL to the laboratory.
Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) caused by steroid 11β-hydroxylase deficiency is considerably rare , with a prevalence of 5–8% in Arabian countries, from which an overall frequency of 1 in 100,000 life births is estimated . Unlike CAH caused by 21-hydroxylase deficiency, the disease is more common in the middle East and North Africa, where consanguinity is common resulting in identical mutations. According to a study clinically affected female newborns were profoundly virilized (Prader score of 4/5), and both genders displayed significantly advanced bone ages and were often times hypertensive. 11-deoxycortisol and 11-deoxycorticosterone were robust biochemical makers for diagnosis of 11β-hydroxylase deficiency. Computationel modeling of 25 missense mutations of CYP11B1 revealed that specific modifications in the heme-binding (R374W and R448C) or substrate-binding (W116C) site of the 11β-hydroxylase, or alterations in its stability (L299P and G267S), may predict severe disease .
2. Hornung J, Gless KH, Abdelhamid S, Vielhauer W, Vecsei P. Radioimmunoassay of free urinary 18-hydroxy-deoxycorticosterone (18-OH-DOC) in patients with essential hypertension. Clin Chim Acta 1978; 87: 181.
4. Khattab A, Haider S, Kumar A, Dhawan S, Alam D, Romero R, et al. Clinical, genetic, and structural basis of congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 11β-hydroxylase deficiency. PNAS 2017; E1933-E1940. .
5. Elmlinger MW, Kühnel W, Ranke MB. Reference ranges for serum concentrations of lutropin (LH), follitropin (FSH), estradiol (E2), prolactin, progesterone, sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS), cortisol and ferritin in neonates, children and young adults. Clin Chem Lab Med 2002; 40: 1151–60.
The circulation of large amounts of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and its sulfate derivative (DHEAS) suggests a physiological role in human physiology.
DHEA and DHEAS are the main secretion products of the adrenal glands in terms of quantity and are precursors of the androgenic and estrogenic steroids . P450c17 is the single enzyme mediating both 17-hydroxylase (17 mono oxygenase, EC184.108.40.206) activities and 17,20 lyase activities in the synthesis of steroid hormones. Steroid 17-hydroxylase converts pregnenolone to 17-hydroxypregnenolone and converts progesterone to 17-hydroxyprogesterone. These 17 hydroxylated steroids may then be converted by 17,20-lyase to dehydroepiandrosterone and androstendione, respectively. The latter two steroids are precursors of testosterone and estrogen synthesis while 17-hydroxyprogesterone is a key precusor of cortisol synthesis .
The sulfation of DHEA into its more stable sulfate ester DHEAS is catalyzed by the enzyme DHEA sulfotransferase (hydroxy steroid sulfotransferase). The blood concentration of DHEAS is approximately 1,000 times that of DHEA.
The enzyme P450c17 is encoded by the gene CXYP17 and mutations can cause either 17-hydroxylase or 17,20 lyase deficiency or both.
The plasma concentration of DHEA is comparable to that of cortisol but shows significantly less intraindividual variation. Since DHEA and DHEAS are in a steady state relative to each other, DHEAS should be measured due to the fact that it is easier to determine and subject to less diurnal variation because of its longer half life (7–9 hours).
In the gonads and skin, steroid sulfatases convert DHEAS back to DHEA, which then acts as a precursor of stronger androgens and estrogens.
- Suspected androgen excess in young women (deep voice, alopecia, acne, masculinization, ambiguous sex characteristics)
- Suspected androgen excess in young men (precocious puberty, early pubic hair growth, early enlargement of the penis, deep voice)
- Differential diagnosis of hirsutism and virilism
- Suspected adrenocortical tumor, in particular carcinoma
- Functional assessment of the zona reticularis in primary adrenocortical insufficiency
- Non classic congenital adrenal hyperplasia.
- DHEA: radioimmunoassay and immunoassays with and without extraction
- DHEAS: immunoassays without extraction
- DHEA and DHEAS: LC-MS/MS
Serum: 1 mL
In pregnancy, DHEAS is produced in large quantities by the fetal adrenal glands and serves as a precursor for estrogen synthesis in the placenta.
After birth, DHEAS declines sharply (80%) and does not start to increase again until the age of 7–8 years. DHEAS reaches a peak in both genders at the age of 20–25, when the concentration is approximately the same as at birth. At the age of 40–60 years, the concentration declines more sharply to only about 20% of the peak concentration and results in a fall in the formation of androgens and estrogens in peripheral target tissues.
In women, increased concentrations of DHEA and DHEAS cause symptoms of androgen excess; this is not the case in men. Mild to moderate increases are often idiopathic. When DHEA is significantly increased in men, it is converted into estrogen, resulting in increased estrogen levels.
DHEA mediates its action via multiple signaling pathways involving specific membrane receptors and via transformation into androgen and estrogen derivatives acting through their specific receptors . These pathways include: nitric oxide synthase activation, modulation of γ-amino butyric acid receptors, N-methyl D-aspartate, differential expression of inflammatory factors and reactive oxygen species. Clinical and epidemiological studies suggest that low DHEA levels might be associated with ischemic heart disease, endothelial dysfunction, and atherosclerosis. DHEA, formerly believed to be only an intermediary steroid in the biosynthetic pathway of sex steroid hormones has documented unsuspected activities of its own .
Storage of serum samples is possible at 22 °C or 4 °C for 4 days.
Biological influence factors
The release of androgens synthesized in the adrenal cortex is stimulated by ACTH and not by gonadotropins. The synthesis of adrenocortical androgens can therefore be suppressed by the administration of glucocorticoids.
2. Maninger N, Wolkowitz OM, Reuss VI, Epel ES, Mellon SH. Neurobiological and neuropsychiatric effects of dehydoepiandrosterone (DHEA) and DHEA sulfate (DHEAS). Front Neuroendocrinol 2009; 30 (1): 65-91.
5. Elmlinger MW, Kühnel W, Ranke MB. Reference ranges for serum concentrations of lutropin (LH), follitropin (FSH), estradiol (E2), prolactin, progesterone, sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS), cortisol and ferritin in neonates, children and young adults. Clin Chem Lab Med 2002; 40: 1151–60.
Description of symbols for plasma cortisol, urinary free cortisol, and plasma ACTH: ↑, elevated; ↑−↑↑, elevated to strongly elevated; ↓, decreased;
Description of symbols for functional tests: Ø no reaction, ↑ reaction with increase in cortisol; ↑↑ excessive reaction with increase in cortisol, ↓ decrease in cortisol, in the 8 mg dexamethason test suppression of cortisol; – not indicated.
Clinical and laboratory findings
Values in μg/dL (nmol/L); conversion formula: μg/dL × 27.6 = nmol/L
Conversion: μg/dL × 2.76 = nmol/L; threshold values are the 97.5th percentiles,
Clinical and laboratory findings
Data expressed in nmol/L. Values are 5th and 95th percentiles
Data expressed in nmol/L. Conversion: nmol/L × 330 = ng/L
Clinical and laboratory findings
Data expressed in μg/L. Conversion: μg/L × 3.026 = nmol/L
Values are 2.5th and 97.5th percentiles. Conversion: μmol/L × 0.2714 = μg/L
Clinical and laboratory findings
Figure 34.1-1 The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis (HPA) is a neuroendocrine system subserving control of adrenocortical glucocorticoid secretion by the brain. Secretion via corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) released from the hypothalamus regulates ACTH synthesis from the anterior pituitary. The adrenal glucocorticoid production is regulated by a negative feedback loop in response to pituitary derived ACTH. Arginine-vasopressin (AVP) and oxytocin are weak stimulants of ACTH, but they potentiate the action of CRH. CRH binds to surface receptors on the anterior pituitary corticotroph cells leading to the release of ACTH and other proopiomelanocortin (POMC) related peptides. Glucocorticoid feedback to the hypothalamus down regulates CRH secretion. The brain reacts most sensitively to feedback inhibition through its glucocorticoid receptors and high affinity mineralocorticoid receptors. Feedback inhibition also takes place at the level of the anterior pituitary, which also contains glucocorticoid receptors.
Figure 34.1-2 Biosynthesis of adrenocortical steroids. The synthetic pathways for aldosterone, cortisol, and testosterone are shown. 21-hydroxylase deficiency prevents the synthesis of aldosterone and cortisol and precursors such as 17-hydoxy pregnenolone are directed toward androgen synthesis .
Figure 34.4-1 Causes of endogenous Cushing’s syndrome, modified from Ref. . Approximately 70 % of cases of Cushing’s syndrome are associated with macronodular hyperplasia of the adrenal cortex and McCune-Albright syndrome.
Figure 34.5-1 Proopiomelanocortin (POMC) processing by prohormone convertase 1 (PC1) and prohormone convertase 2 (PC2). Modified with kind permission from Ref. . The numbers refer to the respective amino acid sequences. β-LP, β-lipotrophin; N-POC, N-terminal proopiomelanocortin; JP, joining peptide; γ3MSH, γ3-melanocyte stimulating hormone, αMSH, α-melanocyte stimulating hormone; CLIP, corticotropin-like intermediate lobe peptide; γLPG, γ-lipotrophin; βEP, β-endorphin.