Neuroendocrine dysfunction in genetic subtypes of primary unipolar depression
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Disinhibited activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) neuroendocrine system, characterized most specifically by abnormal responses to the dexamethasone suppression test (DST), is observed in 40-50% of patients with endogenous depression. The heterogeneity of endogenous depressives with respect to this neuroendocrine marker is so far unexplained. A recent report from Iowa suggested that genetic factors could account for this heterogeneity, since abnormal DST reponses were found with widely differing frequencies among primary unipolar depressives subtyped by the genetic criteria of Winokur. We studied 14 patients with primary endogenous delusional unipolar depression. Abnormal DST responses were found in 79% of the entire group, and with similar frequencies among each of the Winokur subtypes. In particular, five of six patients (83%) with depression spectrum disease had abnormal DST results. This contrasts with a frequency of 4% reported by the Iowa group. We conclude that disinhibited HPA activity does occur in depression spectrum disease when a delusional endogenous depression is present. Our results and those of the Iowa study could both be consistent with a threshold model of HPA activation. The high frequency of positive DST results in delusional endogenous depressives may be determined by disinhibited central pain mechanisms. Variations in this clinical dimension, combined with variations in threshold for HPA activation by pain mechanisms, could account for the heterogeneity of DST responses among endogenous depressives.
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