OBJECTIVE: The demonstration of a central to peripheral ACTH gradient in a hypercortisolaemic patient is diagnostic of Cushing's disease. We tried to determine whether single blood samples for ACTH obtained sequentially from each of the inferior petrosal sinuses following human corticotrophin-releasing hormone (hCRH) stimulation can reliably establish such a gradient. DESIGN: Prospective study. PATIENTS: Seventeen patients with clinical and biochemical features of Cushing's syndrome. METHODS: After the administration of hCRH, the patients underwent bilateral sequential inferior petrosal sinus sampling, with a single blood sample obtained from each of the inferior petrosal sinuses sequentially, along with a peripheral venous sample. The petrosal sinus catheter was withdrawn immediately after obtaining a blood sample. Patients did not require indwelling catheters in the petrosal sinuses, nor heparinisation. RESULTS: Bilateral sequential inferior petrosal sinus sampling correctly identified a pituitary source of ACTH, as shown by a central to peripheral ACTH ratio >2, in all patients in whom the procedure was successfully carried out. All patients underwent transsphenoidal pituitary surgery resulting in remission. CONCLUSIONS: The simplified method of inferior petrosal sinus sampling, using a single sequential sample from each of the inferior petrosal sinuses, following initial hCRH stimulation, is as accurate as the more complex test using multiple bilateral simultaneous inferior petrosal sinus samples. It avoids the use of indwelling cerebral venous catheters and is therefore unlikely to cause brain stem damage.