Adrenal gland & paraganglia

Adrenal hyperfunction / hyperplasia

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia

Last author update: 1 February 2005
Last staff update: 15 July 2020

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PubMed Search: Congenital adrenal hyperplasia[TI] pathology

Nat Pernick, M.D.
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Cite this page: Pernick N. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia. website. Accessed March 22nd, 2023.
Definition / general
  • Various autosomal recessive syndromes due to enzyme deficiencies in biosynthesis of adrenal steroids, diverting production to other pathways and causing elevated ACTH levels and adrenocortical hyperplasia<
Clinical features
  • Usually children, rarely adults; no gender preference
  • Symptoms depend on specific defect; include salt wasting, virilization, adrenogenital syndrome and hypertension
  • Salt wasting syndrome: usually evident soon after birth (in utero, maternal kidneys maintain electrolytes and fluids); hypotension due to decreased serum sodium and increased serum potassium (from lack of aldosterone production), acidosis, cardiovascular collapse and death
  • Simple virilizing syndrome: easier to detect in females (clitoral hypertrophy) than males
  • Non-classic virilizing syndrome: more common than simple virilizing syndrome; asymptomatic or only hirsutism
  • Adrenogenital syndrome: adrenal secretes excess androgens, causing changes towards adult masculinity in children or female adults; 50% occur before puberty, 80% are female; diagnose based on elevated dehydroepiandrosterone; rarely associated with male adult feminization due to increased 17-ketosteroids
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia tumors: virilization in adult women is usually associated with carcinoma, particularly if Cushings syndrome also present; feminization in adult men is almost always associated with carcinoma; congenital adrenal hyperplasia is associated with testicular tumors that arise from ectopic adrenal cortical rests (Arch Pathol Lab Med 2000;124:785), and rarely with similar ovarian tumors (Am J Surg Pathol 2001;25:1443)
  • Congenital lipoid adrenal hyperplasia: very rare, low cortisol and aldosterone secretion, high levels of ACTH, FSH, LH and plasma rennin; present with severe adrenal insufficiency in neonatal period; usually die in infancy
Specified enzyme deficiencies
  • 21-hydroxylase deficiency: causes 95% of cases; incidence of 1 per 5,000 to 14,500 births (1 in 60 in the normal population are heterozygotes); block in production of aldosterone and cortisol leads to accumulation of 17-hydroxypregnenolone and its catabolite pregnanetriol, also high plasma ACTH; causes virilizing syndrome, cortisol deficiency and variable salt wasting syndrome; also Leydig cell hyperplastic nodules without Reinke crystalloids
  • Non-classic 21-hydroxylase deficiency: very common autosomal recessive disorder (1% incidence in parts of US), with mild cortisol deficiency, excessive adrenal androgens and no salt wasting; usually diagnosed by early adulthood
  • 11-beta hydroxylase deficiency: second most common form (5%), incidence of 1 per 100,000 live births; associated with increased androgens and deoxycorticosterone; causes virilization and hypertension
  • 17-alpha hydroxylase deficiency: causes 1% of cases, all patients have female external genitalia due to increased deoxycorticosterone; also hypertension
  • 3 beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase deficiency: impaired synthesis of all steroid hormones, adrenal gland is similar to normal fetus; patients present in early infancy with adrenal insufficiency, variable virilization in females
  • Exogenous glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids to provide cortisol and suppress ACTH levels
  • Surgical correction of external genitalia
Gross description
  • Marked adrenal enlargement (15g each gland) with cerebriform appearance, tan-brown
  • Secondary to elevated ACTH (due to reduced cortisol secretion)
Microscopic (histologic) description
  • Diffuse cortical hyperplasia, particularly of zona reticularis-like compact cells
Differential diagnosis
  • Bilateral hyperplasia due to ectopic ACTH: not grossly cerebriform, may have metastatic carcinoma and differentiate clinically
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