OBJECTIVE: Biochemistry and I-6beta-iodomethyl norcholesterol scintigraphy (IMS) have both been used to assess cortisol secretion by adrenocortical incidentalomas. However, which biochemical abnormalities indicate subclinical corticoid excess is still debatable whilst IMS is expensive and cumbersome. The aim of the study was to evaluate prospectively patients with adrenal incidentalomas using both IMS and biochemical methods to examine whether the IMS pattern is associated with biochemical abnormalities and, if this is so, to find a biochemical parameter that could be used as a screening test to identify a subset of patients on whom IMS could subsequently be performed. METHODS: Thirty-one patients with benign cortical adenomas were recruited from 43 consecutive patients with adrenal incidentalomas. All 31 patients underwent IMS and measurement of (i) 0800 h serum cortisol, ACTH, dehydroepiandrosterone and 17-hydroxyprogesterone; (ii) midnight serum cortisol; (iii) 2400 h excretion of urinary free cortisol; (iv) cortisol after the overnight 1 mg dexamethasone (DEX) suppression test; (v) cortisol after an i.v. 4 mg DEX test; (vi) determination of the diurnal variation in serum cortisol. RESULTS: Sixty-one per cent of patients displayed unilateral uptake during IMS and 39% showed bilateral uptake. Patients with unilateral uptake exhibited significantly lower ACTH concentrations (P=0.0005), higher midnight cortisol concentrations (P=0.02), disrupted diurnal variation of serum cortisol (P=0.02) and higher cortisol concentrations after DEX suppression tests (P=0.01). Cortisol concentrations following the two DEX suppression tests correlated closely (r=0.80, P=0.0001). The i.v. 4 mg DEX test was clearly more sensitive for the diagnosis of unilateral uptake than the overnight 1 mg DEX test (76 vs 52%). Using various thresholds of cortisol concentration following the overnight 1 mg DEX test, it was found that the sensitivity of the test could be improved to 100% if the threshold was set at 60 nmol/l rather than the classical value of 138 nmol/l. All patients but one with post-test serum cortisol concentrations above 60 nmol/l as against none of patients with cortisol below 60 nmol/l exhibited at least one associated biochemical abnormality indicating subclinical glucocorticoid excess. CONCLUSION: In adrenocortical incidentalomas, unilateral uptake during IMS suggests subclinically excessive and/or autonomous cortisol secretion. A cortisol concentration above 60 nmol/l following the overnight 1 mg DEX test is highly correlated with unilateral uptake and is associated with biochemical abnormalities indicating subclinical glucocorticoid excess. Our results favour the use of the 1 mg overnight DEX test with revised criteria of interpretation as a screening test for subclinical hypercortisolism among patients with adrenocortical incidentalomas.