Osteoporosis is a common manifestation of Cushing's syndrome, but the mechanisms responsible for this abnormality have not been defined. With the objective of analyzing parathyroid hormone (PTH) secretion in chronic hypercortisolism (CH), we evaluated 11 healthy subjects and 8 patients with CH, 6 with Cushing's disease and 2 with adrenal adenoma. These volunteers were submitted to tests of PTH stimulation through hypocalcemia (EDTA), PTH suppression through hypercalcemia (iv and oral calcium), and evaluation of bone mineral density (BMD) by DEXA. During the test of PTH stimulation, the calcium and magnesium concentrations of the normal and CH groups were similar. Patients with CH showed an increased PTH response to the hypocalcemic stimulus compared to controls. PTH values were significantly higher in the CH group at 70 (17.5 ± 3.5 vs 10.2 ± 1.3 pmol/l, P = 0.04), and 120 min (26.1 ± 5.9 vs 11.3 ± 1.9 pmol/l, P = 0.008) of EDTA infusion. The area under the curve for PTH during EDTA infusion was also significantly higher in patients with CH than in normal subjects (1867 ± 453 and 805 ± 148 pmol l-1 2 h-1, P = 0.02). During the test of PTH suppression, calcium, magnesium and PTH levels of the patients with hypercortisolism and controls were similar. BMD was decreased in patients with hypercortisolism in the spine (0.977 ± 0.052 vs 1.205 ± 0.038 g/cm² in controls, P<0.01). In conclusion, our results show that subjects with CH present decreased bone mass mainly in trabecular bone. The use of dynamic tests permitted the detection of increased PTH secretion in response to a hypocalcemic stimulus in CH patients that may probably be involved in the occurrence of osteoporosis in this state.