1. The clinical utility of plasma metadrenalines for examination of sympatho-adrenal function and catecholamine metabolism was assessed from plasma measurements of these metabolites in a number of clinical conditions (hypertension, cardiac failure, bilateral adrenalectomy and X-chromosomal deletions of the gene for monoamine oxidase), and before and during activation of sympathetic outflow or infusions of noradrenaline and adrenaline.

2. Plasma concentrations of normetadrenaline were less than 25% of those of noradrenaline, concentrations of metadrenaline and adrenaline were similar and those of sulphate-conjugated metadrenalines were 20- to 30-fold higher than free metadrenalines. Hypertensive patients had elevated plasma concentrations of adrenaline, noradrenaline and conjugated but not free metadrenalines. Cardiac failure patients had 2- to 4-fold increases in plasma noradrenaline and free and conjugated normetadrenaline. Adrenalectomy resulted in undetectable plasma concentrations of adrenaline, 91–97% decreases in free and conjugated metadrenaline and a 40% decrease in normetadrenaline relative to noradrenaline. Patients with X-chromosomal deletions of the gene for monoamine oxidase had 6- and 16-fold increases in plasma free and conjugated normetadrenaline and 2- and 4-fold increases in free and conjugated metadrenaline.

3. Infusion of catecholamines increased plasma concentrations of free metadrenalines by less than 6% of increases in precursor amines, indicating that most plasma normetadrenaline (84%) and metadrenaline (90%) is derived from metabolism of catecholamines before their entry into the circulation. Considerable O-methylation of catecholamines within the adrenals explains why sympatho-adrenal activation resulted in smaller proportional increases in plasma metadrenalines than catecholamines.

4. Plasma metadrenalines provide supplementary information about sympatho-adrenal activity to that provided by catecholamines, but are more useful for examination of the extraneuronal inactivation of catecholamines, particularly detection of neurochemical phenotypes in genetic disorders of catecholamine metabolism. Significant formation of metadrenalines within chromaffin tissue explains why measurements of plasma metadrenalines provide an extraordinarily sensitive method for diagnosis of phaeochromocytoma.

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