Dexamethasone suppression test

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Dexamethasone suppression test
Dexamethasone structure.svg
Purposeassess adrenal gland function
proopiomelanocortin derivatives

The dexamethasone suppression test (DST) is used to assess adrenal gland function by measuring how cortisol levels change in response to oral doses or an injection of dexamethasone. [1] It is typically used to diagnose Cushing's syndrome.


The DST was historically used for diagnosing depression, but by 1988 it was considered to be "at best, severely limited in its clinical ability" for this purpose. [2]


Dexamethasone is an exogenous steroid that provides negative feedback to the pituitary gland to suppress the secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Specifically, dexamethasone binds to glucocorticoid receptors in the anterior pituitary gland, which lie outside the blood–brain barrier, resulting in regulatory modulation. [3]

Test procedures

There are several types of DST procedures: [1]

  1. Overnight DST or ONDST - An oral dose of dexamethasone is given between 11pm and midnight, and the cortisol level is measured at 8 - 9am the next morning
  2. Two-day DST - This involves giving an oral dose of dexamethasone at six-hourly intervals for 2 days, with the cortisol level measured 6 hours after the final dose was given
  3. Intravenous DST
  4. Dexamethasone-CRT test


Low-dose and high-dose variations of the test exist. [4] The test is given at low (usually 1–2 mg) and high (8 mg) doses of dexamethasone, and the levels of cortisol are measured to obtain the results. [5]

A low dose of dexamethasone suppresses cortisol in individuals with no pathology in endogenous cortisol production. A high dose of dexamethasone exerts negative feedback on pituitary neoplastic ACTH-producing cells (Cushing's disease), but not on ectopic ACTH-producing cells or adrenal adenoma (Cushing's syndrome).[ citation needed ]


A normal result is a decrease in cortisol levels upon administration of low-dose dexamethasone. Results indicative of Cushing's disease involve no change in cortisol on low-dose dexamethasone, but inhibition of cortisol on high-dose dexamethasone. If the cortisol levels are unchanged by low- and high-dose dexamethasone, then other causes of Cushing's syndrome must be considered with further work-up necessary. After the high-dose dexamethasone, it may be possible to make further interpretations. [6]

is not suppressed by low or high dosesUndetectable or lowPrimary hypercortisolism is likely; Cushing's syndrome, not disease (i.e., the hypercortisolism is not driven by ACTH hypersecretion)
is not suppressed by low doses, but is suppressed by high dosesNormal to elevated but not in hundreds Cushing's disease should be considered because the pituitary still retains some feedback control. A pituitary MRI would be needed to confirm.
is not suppressed by high or low dosesElevated in hundreds Ectopic ACTH syndrome is likely. If an adrenal tumor is not apparent, a chest CT and abdominal CT is indicated to rule out a different tumor secreting ACTH.

†ACTH as measured prior to dosing of dexamethasone [7]

Equivocal results should be followed by a corticotropin-releasing hormone stimulation test, with inferior petrosal sinus sampling.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Adrenocorticotropic hormone</span> Pituitary hormone

Adrenocorticotropic hormone is a polypeptide tropic hormone produced by and secreted by the anterior pituitary gland. It is also used as a medication and diagnostic agent. ACTH is an important component of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and is often produced in response to biological stress. Its principal effects are increased production and release of cortisol and androgens by the cortex and medulla of the adrenal gland, respectively. ACTH is also related to the circadian rhythm in many organisms.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cushing's syndrome</span> Symptoms from excessive exposure to glucocorticoids such as cortisol

Cushing's syndrome is a collection of signs and symptoms due to prolonged exposure to glucocorticoids such as cortisol. Signs and symptoms may include high blood pressure, abdominal obesity but with thin arms and legs, reddish stretch marks, a round red face due to facial plethora, a fat lump between the shoulders, weak muscles, weak bones, acne, and fragile skin that heals poorly. Women may have more hair and irregular menstruation. Occasionally there may be changes in mood, headaches, and a chronic feeling of tiredness.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis</span> Set of physiological feedback interactions

The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis is a complex set of direct influences and feedback interactions among three components: the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. These organs and their interactions constitute the HPA axis.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Anterior pituitary</span> Anterior lobe of the pituitary gland

A major organ of the endocrine system, the anterior pituitary is the glandular, anterior lobe that together with the posterior lobe makes up the pituitary gland (hypophysis). The anterior pituitary regulates several physiological processes, including stress, growth, reproduction, and lactation. Proper functioning of the anterior pituitary and of the organs it regulates can often be ascertained via blood tests that measure hormone levels.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cortisol</span> Human natural glucocorticoid hormone

Cortisol is a steroid hormone, in the glucocorticoid class of hormones. When used as a medication, it is known as hydrocortisone.

Cushing's disease is one cause of Cushing's syndrome characterised by increased secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the anterior pituitary. This is most often as a result of a pituitary adenoma or due to excess production of hypothalamus CRH that stimulates the synthesis of cortisol by the adrenal glands. Pituitary adenomas are responsible for 80% of endogenous Cushing's syndrome, when excluding Cushing's syndrome from exogenously administered corticosteroids. The equine version of this disease is Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Adrenal insufficiency</span> Medical condition

Adrenal insufficiency is a condition in which the adrenal glands do not produce adequate amounts of steroid hormones. The adrenal glands, also referred to as adrenal cortex normally secretes glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids, and androgens. These hormones are important in regulating blood pressure, electrolytes, and metabolism as a whole. Deficiency of these hormones leads to symptoms ranging from abdominal pain, vomiting, muscle weakness and fatigue, low blood pressure, depression, mood and personality changes to organ failure and shock. Adrenal crisis may occur if a person having adrenal insufficiency experiences stresses, such as an accident, injury, surgery, or severe infection; this is a life-threatening medical condition resulting from severe deficiency of cortisol in the body. Death may quickly follow.

Corticotropes are basophilic cells in the anterior pituitary that produce pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) which undergoes cleavage to adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), β-lipotropin (β-LPH), and melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH). These cells are stimulated by corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) and make up 15–20% of the cells in the anterior pituitary. The release of ACTH from the corticotropic cells is controlled by CRH, which is formed in the cell bodies of parvocellular neurosecretory cells within the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus and passes to the corticotropes in the anterior pituitary via the hypophyseal portal system. Adrenocorticotropin hormone stimulates the adrenal cortex to release glucocorticoids and plays an important role in the stress response.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hypopituitarism</span> Medical condition

Hypopituitarism is the decreased (hypo) secretion of one or more of the eight hormones normally produced by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. If there is decreased secretion of one specific pituitary hormone, the condition is known as selective hypopituitarism. If there is decreased secretion of most or all pituitary hormones, the term panhypopituitarism is used.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Metyrapone</span> Chemical compound

Metyrapone, sold under the brand name Metopirone, is a medication which is used in the diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency and occasionally in the treatment of Cushing's syndrome (hypercortisolism). It is part of the steroidogenesis inhibitor class of drugs.

Nelson's syndrome is a disorder that occurs in about one in four patients who have had both adrenal glands removed to treat Cushing's disease. In patients with pre-existing adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-secreting pituitary adenomas, loss of adrenal feedback following bilateral adrenalectomy can trigger the rapid growth of the tumor, leading to visual symptoms and hyperpigmentation. The severity of the disease is dependent upon the effect of ACTH release on the skin, pituitary hormone loss from mass compression, as well as invasion into surrounding structures around the pituitary gland.

In humans and other animals, the adrenocortical hormones are hormones produced by the adrenal cortex, the outer region of the adrenal gland. These polycyclic steroid hormones have a variety of roles that are crucial for the body’s response to stress, and they also regulate other functions in the body. Threats to homeostasis, such as injury, chemical imbalances, infection, or psychological stress, can initiate a stress response. Examples of adrenocortical hormones that are involved in the stress response are aldosterone and cortisol. These hormones also function in regulating the conservation of water by the kidneys and glucose metabolism, respectively.

Pseudo-Cushing's syndrome or non-neoplastic hypercortisolism is a medical condition in which patients display the signs, symptoms, and abnormal cortisol levels seen in Cushing's syndrome. However, pseudo-Cushing's syndrome is not caused by a problem with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis as Cushing's is; it is mainly an idiopathic condition, however a cushingoid appearance is sometimes linked to excessive alcohol consumption. Elevated levels of total cortisol can also be due to estrogen found in oral contraceptive pills that contain a mixture of estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen can cause an increase of cortisol-binding globulin and thereby cause the total cortisol level to be elevated.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Adrenocortical adenoma</span> Medical condition

An adrenocortical adenoma or adrenal adenoma is commonly described as a benign neoplasm emerging from the cells that comprise the adrenal cortex. Like most adenomas, the adrenocortical adenoma is considered a benign tumor since the majority of them are non-functioning and asymptomatic. Adrenocortical adenomas are classified as ACTH-independent disorders, and are commonly associated with conditions linked to hyperadrenalism such as Cushing's syndrome (hypercortisolism) or Conn's syndrome (hyperaldosteronism), which is also known as primary aldosteronism. In addition, recent case reports further support the affiliation of adrenocortical adenomas with hyperandrogenism or florid hyperandrogenism which can cause hyperandrogenic hirsutism in females. "Cushing's syndrome" differs from the "Cushing's disease" even though both conditions are induced by hypercortisolism. The term "Cushing's disease" refers specifically to "secondary hypercortisolism" classified as "ACTH-dependent Cushing's syndrome" caused by pituitary adenomas. In contrast, "Cushing's syndrome" refers specifically to "primary hypercortisolism" classified as "ACTH-independent Cushing's syndrome" caused by adrenocortical adenomas.

The ACTH test is a medical test usually requested and interpreted by endocrinologists to assess the functioning of the adrenal glands' stress response by measuring the adrenal response to adrenocorticotropic hormone or another corticotropic agent such as tetracosactide or alsactide (Synchrodyn). ACTH is a hormone produced in the anterior pituitary gland that stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S), and aldosterone.

Corticorelin is a diagnostic agent. It is a synthetic form of human corticotropin-releasing hormone (hCRH).

Critical illness–related corticosteroid insufficiency is a form of adrenal insufficiency in critically ill patients who have blood corticosteroid levels which are inadequate for the severe stress response they experience. Combined with decreased glucocorticoid receptor sensitivity and tissue response to corticosteroids, this adrenal insufficiency constitutes a negative prognostic factor for intensive care patients.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction</span>

Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), or equine Cushing's disease, is an endocrine disease affecting the pituitary gland of horses. It is most commonly seen in older animals, and is classically associated with the formation of a long, wavy coat (hirsutism) and chronic laminitis.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Adrenalism</span>

Adrenalism describes the condition of an excessive or substandard secretion of hormones related to the adrenal glands, which are found directly superior to the kidneys. Adrenalism can be further distinguished as hyperadrenalism, referring to the excessive secretion of hormones, and hypoadrenalism, referring to the insufficient secretion of hormones.


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