Dysregulation of cortisol metabolism in equine pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction

Ruth A. Morgan*, John A. Keen, Natalie Homer, Mark Nixon, Anna M. McKinnon-Garvin, Jodie A. Moses-Williams, Sarah R. Davis, Patrick W.F. Hadoke, Brian R. Walker

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Equine Cushing disease [pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID)] is a common condition of older horses, but its pathophysiology is complex and poorly understood. In contrast to pituitary-dependent hyperadrenocorticism in other species, PPID is characterized by elevated plasma ACTH but not elevated plasma cortisol. In this study, we address this paradox and the hypothesis that PPID is a syndrome of ACTH excess in which there is dysregulation of peripheral glucocorticoid metabolism and binding. In 14 horses with PPID compared with 15 healthy controls, we show that in plasma, cortisol levels and cortisol binding to corticosteroid binding globulin were not different; in urine, glucocorticoid and androgen metabolites were increased up to fourfold; in liver, 11b-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 (11b-HSD1) expression was reduced; in perirenal adipose tissue, 11b-HSD1 and carbonyl reductase 1 expression was increased; and tissue cortisol levels were not measurably different. The combination of normal plasma cortisol with markedly enhanced urinary cortisol metabolite excretion and dysregulated tissue-specific steroid-metabolizing enzymes suggests that cortisol clearance is increased in horses with PPID. We infer that the ACTH excess may be compensatory and pituitary pathology and autonomous secretion may be a secondary rather than primary pathology. It is possible that successful therapy in PPID may be targeted either at lowering ACTH or, paradoxically, at reducing cortisol clearance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3791-3800
Number of pages10
Issue number11
Publication statusPrint publication - Nov 2018
Externally publishedYes


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