OBJECTIVE: As part of a study on the effect of dopamine therapy on pituitary dependent hormone secretion in critical illness, we documented the impact of this inotropic and vasoactive catecholamine on the serum concentrations of dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS). Concomitantly, serum levels of PRL and cortisol were determined. PATIENTS AND DESIGN: In a prospective, randomized, controlled, open-labelled clinical study, 20 critically ill, adult polytrauma patients receiving dopamine treatment (5 micrograms/kg/mi i.v. for a median 109 hours (range (21-296 hours)), were studied to evaluate the effect of dopamine withdrawal on serum concentrations of DHEAS, PRL and cortisol. The median age of the studied patients was 37 years (range 18-83 years). MEASUREMENTS: Serum DHEAS and cortisol concentrations were measured by RIA and PRL by IRMA. The assessed serum samples were obtained at 0300 h on each of two consecutive study nights. RESULTS: Withdrawal of dopamine infusion was found to elicit a median 25% increase of serum DHEAS concentrations within 24 hours whereas no significant change in DHEAS levels was observed when dopamine infusion was continued throughout both study nights (P = 0.01 continued vs interrupted dopamine). Prolactin levels were undetectable as long as dopamine was infused, and increased to a median of 317 IU/l after 24 hours of dopamine withdrawal (P = 0.0007). Elevated serum cortisol levels remained comparable with continued and interrupted dopamine infusion. CONCLUSIONS: Dopamine infusion appears to suppress serum DHEAS concentrations in critically ill patients without affecting their elevated serum cortisol levels, suggesting a differential regulation of DHEAS and cortisol metabolism in critical illness. The lowering effect of dopamine on DHEAS levels could be linked to the concomitant suppression of circulating PRL. The simultaneous suppression of circulating PRL and DHEAS by dopamine infusion may be an iatrogenic factor maintaining or aggravating the anergic state of prolonged severe illness.