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The Dexamethasone Suppression Test in Patients With Mood Disorders

J Clin Psychiatry 1996;57(10):470-484

Background: This study was undertaken to (1) determine whether the endogenous/nonendogenous mood disorder dichotomy is validated by the dexamethasone suppression test (DST); (2) determine whether other subtyping schemes (unipolar/bipolar, DSM-III melancholic/nonmelancholic, Winokur’s family history subtypes) relate to the DST; (3) evaluate the relative contributions of symptom severity, weight loss, and other factors to DST status; and (4) assess the relative sensitivity of various post-dexamethasone cortisol determinations in the detection of dexamethasone nonsuppression.

Method: 487 consecutive adult inpatients (N = 131) and outpatients (N = 356) with unipolar (N = 422) or bipolar disorder (N = 65) underwent the 1.0-mg DST. Nonsuppression was defined as at least one post-dexamethasone cortisol measurement > 4.0 µg/dL.

Results: Nonsuppression occurred in 27% of all patients with major depression and 43% of all bipolar depressed phase patients. For outpatients, dexamethasone nonsuppression occurred in 35.2% of subjects with endogenous (unipolar + bipolar; N = 145) and 9.0% of those with nonendogenous (unipolar only; N = 211) depressions (single 4 p.m. post-dexamethasone cortisol). For inpatients, dexamethasone nonsuppression was found in 61.5% of subjects with endogenous (N = 104) and 18.5% of those with nonendogenous (N = 27) depressions (three postdexamethasone cortisol determinations). For the inpatient and outpatient sample together, the DST had a sensitivity of 46.2% and a specificity of 89.9% in differentiating endogenous from nonendogenous major depressive episodes. Weight loss, gender, and symptom severity added little to the endogenous/ nonendogenous dichotomy. The Research Diagnostic Criteria (RDC) primary/secondary and Winokur and colleagues’ family history subtypes for unipolar depression were not strongly validated by the DST. The 4 p.m. and 11 p.m. samples together detected 91.0% of those inpatients with abnormal three-sample DST results. The 8 a.m. sample alone detected 30% of those, the 4 p.m. sample alone detected 67%, and the 11 p.m. sample alone detected 62%.

Conclusion: The RDC endogenous/nonendogenous dichotomy was validated by the DST.