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Primary aldosteronism.

The basic clinical pathophysiology of primary aldosteronism (PAL) was described by Conn in terms of autonomous production of aldosterone, secondary suppression of renin and development of hypertension with hypokalaemic alkalosis. Conn recognised a normokalaemic form of the syndrome and suggested that it might masquerade as essential hypertension and be not uncommon. This was hotly disputed at the time, and normokalaemic PAL considered rare until recently, and, as a consequence, overlooked. The advent of a simple screening test, the aldosterone-renin ratio, led to recognition that normokalaemic forms are not uncommon. In fact, PAL may be the commonest specifically treatable and potentially curable form of hypertension so far identified. In all patients with PAL confirmed by lack of suppressibility ("autonomy") of aldosterone production, Familial Hyperaldosteronism Type I (FH-I, glucocorticoid-remediable hyperaldosteronism, reviewed elsewhere in this issue) should first be excluded by dexamethasone suppression or genetic testing. Capable of causing fatal stroke in young people affected by this dominantly inherited disorder, it can be reversed by doses of glucocorticoids such as dexamethasone which partially suppress endogenous ACTH without producing "steroid" side-effects. The remaining varieties of PAL may eventually also be shown to have a genetic basis, but are currently treated either by excision of a solitary aldosterone-secreting tumour or by antagonism of aldosterone's action in the renal tubule. It is possible that both adrenal cortices are genetically predisposed to overproduction of aldosterone in all varieties of PAL, whether because of anomalous regulation of aldosterone secretion or because of a tendency towards hyperplasia and neoplasia. Aldosterone-producing adenomas (APA's) can be divided into two main subtypes based on morphology and biochemical behaviour. The first subtype to be morphologically and biochemically characterised is composed predominantly of fasciculata-like cells and is unresponsive to angiotensin II (ALL-U-APA). The more recently characterised subtype is composed predominantly of glomerulosa-like cells, is responsive to angiotensin II (AII-R-APA) and could previously have been misdiagnosed as bilateral hyperplasia. The renin gene is often overexpressed in the second variety of adenoma, and in surrounding non-tumorous cortex, and the two subgroups show different allelic frequencies for RFLP's of the constitutive renin gene and the constitutive ANP gene locus. Unilateral, solitary, benign adrenal cortical adenomas producing aldosterone (APA's) represent a potentially surgically curable form of hypertension. Adrenal venous sampling (AVS) should always be performed because APA's are biochemically recognisable by adrenal venous steroid measurement before they are identifiable by computerised tomography or scintigraphy, and adrenal masses seen on CT may not be responsible for PAL. The secretory activity of adrenal masses must therefore be established by AVS before surgical removal. Discovery of an adrenal mass on CT requires formulation of a plan, whether or not it is found to be secreting hormones in excess. Independently of the treatment of the patient's hypertension, an apparently nonfunctioning adrenal mass ("incidentaloma") should be removed if 2.5 cm or more in diameter, because of the risk of cancer. Smaller masses require long-term follow-up. Primary aldosteronism not lateralising on AVS should be treated with low dose spironolactone, or with amiloride. For any such patients intolerant of medical treatment, laparoscopic removal of the adrenal showing higher production of aldosterone on AVS is an option worthy of consideration.The resultant reduction in mass of tissue autonomously secreting aldosterone should improve hypertension, as aldosterone productions falls below a critical level, and may even be curative in the short, medium or long term, depending on the rate of growth and activity of au

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