Cushing’s disease arises from functioning adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)–secreting pituitary adenomas. These tumors can be very small and evade detection by MRI. Empty sella syndrome is a phenomenon by which an arachnoid outpouching of CSF into the sella leads to compression of the pituitary, likely due to intracranial hypertension (a common issue in Cushing’s disease), further leading to difficulty in visualizing the pituitary gland that may contribute to difficulty in finding a tumor on MRI, so-called MRI-negative Cushing’s disease. The authors sought to examine the association between empty sella syndrome and MRI-negative Cushing’s disease.
A single-institution database of Cushing’s disease cases from 2000 to 2017 was reviewed, and 197 cases were included in the analysis. One hundred eighty patients had a tissue diagnosis of Cushing’s disease and 17 had remission with surgery, but no definitive tissue diagnosis was obtained. Macroadenomas (tumors > 1 cm) were excluded. The degree of empty sella syndrome was graded on the degree of CSF visualized in the sella on midline sagittal T1-weighted MRI.
Of the 197 cases identified, 40 (20%) presented with MRI-negative disease, and empty sella syndrome was present in 49 cases (25%). MRI-negative disease was found in 18 (37%) of 49 empty sella cases versus 22 (15%) of 148 cases without empty sella syndrome present. Empty sella syndrome was significantly associated with MRI-negative disease (OR 3.32, 95% CI 1.61–6.74, p = 0.0018). Decreased thickness of the pituitary gland was also associated with MRI-negative disease (mean thickness 5.6 vs 6.8 mm, p = 0.0002).
Empty sella syndrome is associated with an increased rate of MRI-negative Cushing’s disease. Pituitary compression causing a relative reduction in the volume of the pituitary for imaging is a plausible cause for not detecting the tumor mass with MRI.