45. Causes and clinical consequences of hyperplasia and atrophy of the suprarenal gland. Cortical tumours of the suprarenal gland (morphology, clinical syndromes) Cortical insufficiency of the suprarenal gland. Tumors of the adrenal medulla.

Page created on April 17, 2019. Last updated on October 12, 2021 at 13:18


The adrenal glands are paired endocrine glands consisting of a cortex and a medulla. The cortex is comprised of three layers, each of which produce a type of hormone:

  • Zona glomerulosa – produces mineralocorticoids, especially aldosterone
  • Zona fasciculata – produces glucocorticoids, especially cortisol
  • Zona reticularis – produces sex steroids, especially androgens

The zona fasciculata accounts for 75% of the cortex, making it much thicker than the other two layers. Mineralocorticoids can bind to glucocorticoid receptors and vice versa (spill-over), so their function may overlap slightly, especially in pathological conditions.

The adrenal medulla is comprised of chromaffin cells which synthesize and secrete catecholamines.

Adrenocortical hyperfunction can cause three different syndromes, depending on which layer of the cortex is hyperfunctioning:

  • Cushing syndrome – if there is an excess of cortisol
  • Conn syndrome – if there is an excess of aldosterone due to primary hyperaldosteronism
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia – if there is an excess of androgens

Cushing syndrome


Cushing syndrome is an endocrine disorder that is caused by excessive amounts of glucocorticoids, especially cortisol. We distinguish four different types:

Type Cause
Pituitary Cushing syndrome (= Cushing disease) ACTH-producing pituitary microadenoma
Adrenal Cushing syndrome Cortisol-producing adrenocortical adenoma or carcinoma or adrenocortical hyperplasia
Ectopic Cushing syndrome Paraneoplastic syndrome
Iatrogenic Cushing syndrome Prolonged glucocorticoid therapy

The most common cause of Cushing syndrome is the iatrogenic type, as glucocorticoid therapy is used for many conditions. Of the endogenous types pituitary Cushing syndrome, also called Cushing disease, is the most common.


Cushing disease is caused by ACTH-producing microadenomas in the anterior lobe of the pituitary. The large amount of ACTH stimulates bilateral hyperplasia of the adrenal cortex, with resulting increased production of glucocorticoids.

Adrenal Cushing syndrome is most commonly caused by adrenocortical adenoma or more rarely adrenocortical carcinoma. Only a small percentage of adrenal tumors are hormone-secreting, so adrenal Cushing syndrome is the rarest of the four types. The ACTH level is low due to negative feedback.

Ectopic Cushing syndrome occurs as a paraneoplastic syndrome where a tumor produces ACTH. This most commonly occurs in cases of small cell lung carcinoma. Like in Cushing disease the adrenal cortex is bilaterally hyperplastic.


A common diagnostic tool in suspected endogenous Cushing syndrome is giving the patient a pharmacologic glucocorticoid (dexamethasone) and later measuring the cortisol level. In normal cases the glucocorticoid will suppress ACTH secretion from the pituitary, which again decrease cortisol production from the adrenal cortex. In any type of endogenous Cushing syndrome, the cortisol level will not be decreased following administration of glucocorticoids.

Probably not important to know for pathology exam.


The morphological changes to the adrenal gland depend on the cause of the hypercortisolism include: cortical atrophy, diffuse hyperplasia, macro/micronodular hyperplasia, adenoma, or carcinoma.

Cortical atrophy happens in patients that have the syndrome due to exogenous glucocorticoid administration. Diffuse hyperplasia is found in patients where there is an excess of ACTH produced.

Clinical features

The list of possible symptoms in Cushing syndrome is endless. Common symptoms of Cushing syndrome include:

  • Purple stretch marks, especially on the abdomen
  • Hyperpigmentation – only in those types where ACTH is elevated. Due to the effect of melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH)
  • Peripheral muscle atrophy
  • Central obesity, thin extremities
  • Buffalo hump
  • Moon face
  • Secondary hypertension
  • Secondary diabetes

Conn syndrome


Conn syndrome is the same as primary hyperaldosteronism. It occurs due to increased production of aldosterone in the adrenal cortex.


The most important causes are:

  • Idiopathic bilateral hyperplasia
  • Aldosterone-producing adrenal adenoma
  • Aldosterone-producing adrenal carcinoma

Idiopathic bilateral hyperplasia is the most common cause of Conn syndrome. The symptoms in these cases are usually mild.

Aldosterone-producing adrenal adenomas are less common than the above, but the symptoms produced are more severe. Only a small percentage of adrenal adenomas secrete hormones, including aldosterone.

Clinical features

Common symptoms of Conn syndrome include:

  • Secondary hypertension – less severe than in Cushing syndrome
  • Hypokalaemia
    • Fatigue
    • Muscle weakness

Even though aldosterone stimulates fluid retention, no significant oedema develops in Conn syndrome. This is because of the aldosterone escape mechanism, which prevents excess amounts of aldosterone from increasing the vascular volume too much.

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), also called adrenogenital syndrome, is a group of autosomal recessive conditions characterised by defects in enzymes that are responsible for cortisol, aldosterone and androgen synthesis in the adrenal cortex. The most common subtype is the enzyme deficiency of 21-hydroxylase.

Deficiency of the 21-hydroxylase enzyme causes cortisol and aldosterone levels to decrease while the level of androgens increases. Due to decreased negative feedback, the ACTH level increases, causing adrenocortical hyperplasia. The increased levels of androgens cause:

  • In females
    • Clitoris hypertrophy
    • Early puberty
    • Virilization – the appearance of male characteristics
      • Deep voice
      • Facial hair
  • In males
    • Early puberty

Adrenal insufficiency


Adrenal insufficiency refers to a decreased production of all adrenocortical hormones. It can be primary, in cases where the adrenal cortex itself is damaged, or secondary, when the insufficiency is due to decreased production of ACTH in the pituitary. Secondary adrenal insufficiency is more common than the primary form.


Primary adrenal insufficiency is also known as Addison disease. It can be caused by:

  • Autoimmune adrenalitis – 80% of cases
  • Tuberculosis
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Infiltration
    • Metastasis
    • Amyloidosis
    • Haemochromatosis
    • fungal infection
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia
  • Waterhouse-Friderichsen syndrome

Autoimmune adrenalitis is the most common cause of Addison disease and involves an autoimmune destruction of the steroid-producing cells of the adrenal cortex. Autoantibodies against these cells are often present. It often occurs as part of both types of a genetic syndrome called autoimmune polyendocrine syndromes.

Waterhouse-Friderichsen syndrome is a life-threatening condition characterised by acute adrenal insufficiency due to haemorrhagic necrosis of the adrenal glands. Patients develop hypotension, circulatory shock and often death due to the lack of fluid regulation due to aldosterone deficiency. Waterhouse-Friderichsen syndrome most frequently develops during meningococcal (Neisseria meningitidis) sepsis.

Tumors of the adrenal gland

Adrenal adenoma

Adrenal adenomas are small (1 – 5 cm), yellow, soft benign tumors. Only a small percentage of them are functional (hormone-secreting). Non-functional adrenocortical adenomas are usually asymptomatic and discovered incidentally, giving them the nickname adrenal incidentaloma.

Adrenal carcinomas

Adrenal carcinomas are larger (up to 20 cm) and aggressive malignant tumors. They usually contain necrosis or haemorrhage. They tend to invade the adrenal veins and inferior vena cava.


Phaeochromocytoma is the most important tumor of the adrenal medulla. They originate from the catecholamine-producing chromaffin cells of the adrenal medulla and therefore can produce catecholamines in most cases. They can be benign or malignant. They’re most commonly small, circumscribed lesions, but they can be large, haemorrhagic masses as well. Phaeochromocytomas are considered malignant only if they’re locally aggressive or metastatic.

Pheochromocytoma is a very convenient type of tumor because it follows something called the “10 percent rule”. Here’s how it works:

  • 10% of cases of pheochromocytoma occur bilaterally (90% occur unilaterally)
  • 10% of cases are familiar (90% are sporadic) – as part of MEN type II or other syndromes
  • 10% of cases are malignant (90% are benign)
  • 10% of cases are extra-adrenal, often in sympathetic ganglia (90% are in the adrenal medulla)
  • 10% of cases occur in children (90% occur in adults)

Pheochromocytomas usually only secrete catecholamines in episodes and not constantly. This causes paroxysmal hypertensive crises, with systolic pressures reaching even 300 mmHg. These episodes are characterised by throbbing headache, sweating, palpitations and anxiety. They may also cause complications such as apoplexy, rupture of aneurysms, myocardial infarct and aortic dissection.

Diagnosis of pheochromocytoma is based on the presence of high levels of catecholamines and catecholamine breakdown products like VMA and HVA in a 24-hour urine sample.

Peripheral neuroblastic tumors

Peripheral neuroblastic tumors like neuroblastoma, ganglioneuroblastoma and ganglioneuroma are tumors that develop from neural crest cells that would develop into the sympathetic nervous system. These tumors are most frequently found in infants and young children. These tumors can occur anywhere in the sympathetic nervous system, but the majority arises from the adrenal medulla.

4 thoughts on “45. Causes and clinical consequences of hyperplasia and atrophy of the suprarenal gland. Cortical tumours of the suprarenal gland (morphology, clinical syndromes) Cortical insufficiency of the suprarenal gland. Tumors of the adrenal medulla.”

  1. i dunno if you believe in God but i think you’re God sent, thanks so much for the help you give us other students with these notes, deeply grateful

    1. I don’t believe in god, but thank you so much for your kind words anyway! I’m glad I could help!

  2. Szia, Nik

    First, Happy easter!
    Just wanted to clarify that dexamethasone is not used the way you mention here.
    When you administer dexamethasone, you want to exclude either Cushing disease or ectopic Cushing syndrome. When a high dose of the drug is administered, ACTH levels from Cushing disease will decrease, while ACTH levels in ectopic Cushing syndrome will remain the same.

    1. Hey and happy easter to you too.

      What you’re describing is the high-dose dexamethasone test, which is used to differentiate Cushing disease from ectopic Cushing syndrome. The low-dose dexamethasone suppression test is used for the diagnosis of any type of Cushing Syndrome. You can read more about it here: https://www.uptodate.com/contents/dexamethasone-suppression-tests
      The details of this test is beyond the scope of pathology anyway so I won’t begin to describe both kinds of tests.

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