Measuring the variation in thyroid stimulating hormone blood levels between midnight and morning may be better for diagnosing Cushing’s syndrome than current approaches, a study suggests.
The study, “TSH ratio as a novel diagnostic method for Cushing’s syndrome,” was published in the Endocrine Journal.
Cushing’s syndrome (CS) is a condition characterized by excess cortisol in the blood, which can lead to a variety of issues, including obesity, high blood pressure, abnormal lipid levels, osteoporosis, depression, and cognitive impairments.
In some cases, patients have high cortisol levels, but lack the typical physical features of Cushing’s syndrome. These patients are considered to have subclinical Cushing’s syndrome (SCS), and are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease.
Being able to properly diagnose CS and SCS is of utmost importance for proper intervention and treatment of these patients.
Current methods of diagnosis rely on dexamethasone suppressing tests or late-night salivary and blood cortisol tests, as well as measurements of cortisol in urine. However, because cortisol is a stress-hormone, it can be elevated in cases of mental or physical stress, leading to false positive results on these tests.
Researchers in this study examined if another hormone, called the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), could be used to diagnose Cushing’s syndrome with better accuracy.
TSH is a hormone that stimulates the thyroid gland and whose secretion is affected by the body’s circadian rhythm. Its highest levels in the blood are usually seen in the late evening or early morning. However, patients with CS or SCS lack this nocturnal increase in TSH levels, which could be useful as a new diagnostic approach.
The study recruited 142 patients with suspected CS and SCS, and 21 patients with depression, being treated at the Osaka University Hospital in Japan.
Patients received the ordinal screening tests for Cushing’s syndrome, along with measurements of their midnight-to-morning TSH levels.
After taking the tests, only 20 patients were diagnosed as having Cushing’s, including 12 with over (normal) Cushing’s syndrome and 10 with subclinical Cushing’s syndrome.
Patients with Cushing’s had significantly lower midnight TSH levels than non-Cushing’s patients. No differences were seen in morning levels between the groups. Of note, TSH ratio was maintained in patients with depression, suggesting TSH levels could be used to diagnose Cushing’s in patients with depression.
Researchers observed that serum TSH ratio had powerful diagnostic accuracy. Among patients identified as having Cushing’s, 90% actually had the disease. And among patients excluded for Cushing’s, 95% did not have the condition. These sensitivity and specificity rates were better than with current diagnostic approaches.
However, when considering this test, patients with a severe TSH deficiency must be taken into account.
Overall, these results suggest that the midnight-to-morning serum TSH ratio is a potential new way to diagnose both CS and SCS with a higher specificity than the current diagnostic methods
“The strength of our current survey is its prospective design and the evaluation of not only overt CS but also SCS. The limitation is the relatively small number of CS group patients, especially overt CD,” the researchers wrote.
“New prospective studies will be needed with a larger number of patients in order to further clarify the optimal TSH ratio in the diagnosis of CS,” the study concluded.