Study of the Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis and Its Role in Major Depression

This study has been completed.
Information provided by:
National Institutes of Health Clinical Center (CC) Identifier:
First received: November 3, 1999
Last updated: March 3, 2008
Last verified: June 1999

Major depression represents a major public health problem worldwide and in the U.S. Fifteen percent of the U.S. population has depression at some point in life (40 million individuals). The condition is more common in women, occurring at a female to male ratio of 5:2. Presently, 6-8% of all outpatients in primary care meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression. Fifteen percent of untreated patients with depression will commit suicide. Most of the people committing suicide are depressed. Researchers believe that by the year 2020 suicide will be the 10th most common cause of death in the U.S.

In addition to mortality due to suicide, depression is also associated with other severe health conditions. Areas of the brain (hippocampus) begin to deteriorate, heart disease, and decreased bone mineral density (osteoporosis) are all associated with major depression.

Researchers have believed for years that hormones controlled by the hypothalmus, pituitary gland, and adrenal gland (commonly referred to as the HPA axis or system) are in some way associated with psychiatric illnesses like depression.

According to previous studies, researchers have theorized that increased activity of the HPA axis is associated with depressed patients with typical melancholic features. Melancholia refers to the feelings of anhedonia (absence of pleasure from activites that would normally be thought of as pleasurable), insomnia (inability to sleep), guilt, and psychomotor changes. On the other hand a decrease in activity of the HPA axis may be associated with the atypical features of depression.

This study has already developed and refined studies that have improved the understanding of the HPA axis in healthy humans and depressed patients. Researchers have already identified and plan to continue identifying distinct subtypes of depressive disorders based on the activity of the HPA axis.

Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic
Mood Disorders

Study Type: Observational
Official Title: Intensively Sampled Dynamics of ACTH and Cortisol Affective Disorders

Resource links provided by NLM:

Further study details as provided by National Institutes of Health Clinical Center (CC):

Estimated Enrollment: 60
Study Start Date: January 1995
Estimated Study Completion Date: May 2000
Detailed Description:

Major depression represents a major public health problem worldwide and in the U.S. Fifteen percent of the U.S. population has depression at some point in life (40 million individuals), with a female to male ratio 5:2. Presently, 6-8% of all outpatients in primary care meet diagnostic criteria for major depression. Fifteen percent of untreated depressed patients commit suicide-most suicides have depression. In the U.S., in the year 2020 suicide will be the 10th cause of death. In addition to mortality due to suicide, major depression is associated with severe morbidity, that includes decreased hippocampal volume, cardiovascular illness, and decreased bone mineral density. Moreover, after myocardial infarction, patients with depression have a higher mortality rate than those without depression (adjusted risk ratio 4:29). Because such morbidity can be differentially affected either by increased or decreased levels of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function, it is necessary to study HPA function in our populations. Additionally, based on our previous data, we have hypothesized that depressed patients with melancholic features would have increase HPA function, while those with atypical features would have decreased HPA function. Using this protocol, over the past four years we have developed, refined, and repeatedly conducted detailed patient-oriented studies that have expanded the frontiers of existing knowledge on HPA regulation in healthy humans and depressed subjects. This protocol has already demonstrated the existence of two distinct biological subtypes of major depression, with the important finding of a decrement of HPA function in patients with atypical features. Thus, the atypical classification is not restricted to phenotype but represents a subtype with specific biological characteristics. This finding shows that there are unique strategies, targets, and potential interventional approaches to patients with either atypical or melancholic features. The elucidation of the neuroendocrinology of major depression has been a key goal of our branch, and this protocol offers the potential to unravel the biology of phenotypically distinct subtypes of major depression. Moreover, the elucidation of the medical consequences of major depression requires the precise longitudinal characterization of HPA function that is accomplished by this study.


Genders Eligible for Study:   Both
Accepts Healthy Volunteers:   Yes

Patients with primary affective disorder (major depression), chronic fatigue syndrome, and control subjects.

Psychiatric diagnosis will be made by means of the Structured Clinical Diagnosis for DSM-III-R (SCID), performed by senior experienced clinicians.

Exclusion Criteria:

Subjects on chronic medications, which can not be washed out in one month.

Subjects with any serious medical illnesses which have been excluded.

Women who are pregnant, trying to become pregnant or sexually active and not using effective contraception.

Patients with HIV-1 infection.

Patients on chronic lithium therapy.

Subjects unable to discontinue alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs.

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Please refer to this study by its identifier: NCT00001479

United States, Maryland
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Bethesda, Maryland, United States, 20892
Sponsors and Collaborators
  More Information

Publications: Identifier: NCT00001479     History of Changes
Other Study ID Numbers: 950044, 95-M-0044
Study First Received: November 3, 1999
Last Updated: March 3, 2008
Health Authority: United States: Federal Government

Keywords provided by National Institutes of Health Clinical Center (CC):
Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
Antidepressant Treatment
Chaos Theory
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Major Depression
Normal Volunteer
Primary Affective Disorder

Additional relevant MeSH terms:
Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic
Depressive Disorder, Major
Mood Disorders
Signs and Symptoms
Virus Diseases
Muscular Diseases
Musculoskeletal Diseases
Central Nervous System Diseases
Nervous System Diseases
Neuromuscular Diseases
Depressive Disorder
Mental Disorders
Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
Hormones, Hormone Substitutes, and Hormone Antagonists
Physiological Effects of Drugs
Pharmacologic Actions processed this record on August 28, 2014