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Adrenal Gland Volume in Major Depression:  Increase During the Depressive Episode and Decrease With Successful Treatment

Robert T. Rubin, MD, PhD; Jeffrey J. Phillips, MD; Todd F. Sadow, MD; James T. McCracken, MD
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1995;52(3):213-218. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1995.03950150045009.
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Background:  Hyperactivity of the pituitary-adrenocortical axis is the most prominent neuroendocrine abnormality in major depression. It is state-related, returning to normal with resolution of the depressive episode. Adrenal gland enlargement also has been reported in patients with major depression and has been hypothesized as an index of cumulative lifetime depression. However, whether or not adrenal enlargement decreases with successful treatment of depression has not yet been studied, to our knowledge. We, therefore, determined adrenal gland volume in patients with major depression before and after treatment and in matched normal controls, and compared adrenal size with functional indexes of pituitary-adrenocortical activity.

Methods:  Adrenal volumes were measured by magnetic resonance imaging in nine adult and two-adolescent patients with major depression during their illness and during full remission when medication had been stopped for at least 1 month, and in nine adult and two adolescent normal control subjects individually matched to the patients. Basal, 4 to 7 PM plasma corticotropin 1-39 and cortisol levels, and corticotropin 1-39 and cortisol responses to administration of ovine corticorelin and low-dose cosyntropin also were measured.

Results:  Mean adrenal gland volume was significantly larger, by about 70%, in the patients while depressed than after successful treatment, and it also was significantly larger, again by about 70%, than the mean adrenal gland volume of their matched controls. After treatment, the mean adrenal volume of the patients decreased and was no longer significantly different from that of their controls at baseline. The magnitude of the decrease was significantly positively correlated with the duration of the depressive episode. Basal, late-afternoon plasma corticotropin 1-39 levels were significantly lower in the patients while depressed than in their matched controls, but basal plasma cortisol levels did not differ significantly among the three groups, nor did the corticotropin 1-39 and cortisol responses to corticorelin or the cortisol response to cosyntropin. Correlations between adrenal gland volume and basal corticotropin and cortisol levels, and the corticotropin and cortisol responses to hormone challenge, were not consistently in the expected direction in any of the three groups of subjects.

Conclusions:  Adrenal gland enlargement occurring during an episode of major depression appears to be state-dependent, in that it reverts to the normal size range during remission after treatment. It thus does not appear to be an index of cumulative lifetime depression. The lack of a discernible relationship between adrenal volume and pituitary-adrenocortical activity remains to be explained and might be related to noncorticotropin influences on the adrenal gland, including other trophic hormones and/or neural mechanisms.

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