Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Enhanced adrenal sensitivity to adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) is evidence of HPA axis hyperactivity in Alzheimer's disease

J. T. O'Briena1 c1, D. Amesa1, I. Schweitzera1, M. Mastwyka1 and P. Colmana1

a1 Department of Psychiatry and Department of Diabetes and Endocrinology, University of Melbourne, Royal Melbourne Hospital, Melbourne, VIC, Australia


Adrenal sensitivity was assessed in 16 non-depressed patients with NINCDS/ADRDA Alzheimer's disease (AD) and 18 control subjects by measuring cortisol response to low dose (0·05 μg/kg i.v.) exogenous adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). Controlling for sex and medication, both peak cortisol level (peak–baseline) and area under cortisol response curve (AUC above baseline) were significantly greater in AD subjects. This shows that HPA axis hyperactivity, as demonstrated by enhanced adrenal sensitivity to ACTH, occurs in AD. Similar findings have been reported to occur in depression. Among AD subjects, AUC cortisol response correlated with current age (r = 0·70, P = 0·001) and age at onset of dementia (r = 0·73, P = 0·001) and an inverse correlation was seen between cortisol AUC and cognitive test (CAMCOG) score (r = −0·51, P = 0·044). Our findings suggest that HPA axis hyperactivity in AD is associated with advancing age and cognitive dysfunction. Such changes may be cause, or consequence, of neuronal loss.


c1 Address for correspondence: Dr John T. O'Brien, Brighton Clinic, Newcastle General Hospital, Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne NE4 6BE.