Abnormalities in several hypothalamic-pituitary-target organ axes in depression may reflect alterations in central neurotransmitter receptor function. As the alpha 2-adrenergic receptor has been implicated in a variety of neuroendocrine abnormalities in depression, we assessed the role of alpha 2-adrenoceptor dysfunction in mediating response abnormalities of growth hormone, cortisol, and prolactin after intravenous clonidine administration (an alpha 2-adrenergic receptor agonist) in 18 patients with major depression (12 with melancholic features, 6 without melancholic symptoms) and 9 healthy volunteers. In particular, we examined the hypothesis that these abnormalities might be more evident in patients with DSM-III melancholic depression. After clonidine, the mean growth hormone response was significantly lower in melancholic depressives compared to controls (p = 0.02), and the shape of the growth hormone response profile was also significantly different in melancholic patients (p = 0.04). There was an overall decrease in the mean cortisol concentration after clonidine in melancholic patients and control subjects (p = 0.02), as well as a larger cumulative prolactin response in melancholic patients compared to those without melancholic features (p = 0.02). The present results confirm prior observations of a blunted growth hormone response after clonidine and suggest that alterations in alpha 2-adrenergic receptor activity might also contribute to several neuroendocrine abnormalities in patients with melancholic depression.