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Reincke, Martin and Würth, G. and Allolio, B. and Winkelmann, W. (1993): The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in critical illness. Response to dexamethasone and corticotropin-releasing hormone. In: Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Vol. 77: pp. 151-156
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Abstract

Plasma ACTH and cortisol concentrations are frequently elevated in patients in intensive care units (ICU). To examine the functional integrity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis during critical illness, we evaluated prospectively 53 ICU patients in a general medical ICU. Thirty-one patients and 7 normal controls underwent an overnight dexamethasone suppression test (3 mg dexamethasone, orally, at 2300 h). Plasma ACTH and serum cortisol were measured at 0900 h. In a separate experiment, 22 patients and 7 control subjects underwent a CRH stimulation test [100 micrograms human (h) CRH, iv]. ACTH and cortisol concentrations were determined from -15 to 120 min. Compared to normal controls, plasma ACTH and serum cortisol concentrations were not fully suppressible by dexamethasone [mean +/- SEM: plasma ACTH, 21 +/- 4 vs. 3 +/- 0.5 pg/mL (4.7 +/- 0.9 vs. 0.7 +/- 0.1 pmol/L); serum cortisol, 13.9 +/- 1.9 vs. 1.5 +/- 0.3 micrograms/dL (390 +/- 50 vs. 40 +/- 10 nmol/L); P = 0.0001], demonstrating an altered glucocorticoid feedback in the ICU patients. Patients undergoing hCRH stimulation had clearly elevated mean baseline plasma ACTH and serum cortisol concentrations [ACTH, 78 +/- 20 pg/mL vs. 15 +/- 3 in controls (17.2 +/- 4.4 vs. 3.4 +/- 0.7 pmol/L; P = 0.007); cortisol, 36.8 +/- 3.4 micrograms/dL vs. 9.6 +/- 1.2 (1020 +/- 80 vs. 260 +/- 30 nmol/L; P = 0.0001)]. Despite elevated baseline glucocorticoid concentrations, stimulation with hCRH resulted in significantly higher peak plasma ACTH concentrations 15 min after hCRH than in controls [134 +/- 31 vs. 48 +/- 9 pg/mL (29.5 +/- 6.8 vs. 10.6 +/- 2.0 pmol/L); P < 0.05]. Serum cortisol concentrations in ICU patients were significantly elevated throughout the test period (P = 0.0001) and rose to a peak of 43.9 +/- 3.5 micrograms/dL compared to 18.2 +/- 2.0 micrograms/dL in controls (1210 +/- 70 vs. 500 +/- 60 nmol/L). We conclude that ICU patients have a markedly altered responsiveness of their pituitary corticotroph to suppression with dexamethasone and stimulation with hCRH. These findings may be explained by altered pituitary glucocorticoid feedback and/or hypersecretion of peptides with CRH-like activity (vasopressin and cytokines) during critical illness.