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Mol Psychiatry. 2002;7(5):468-73.

Association between decreased serum tryptophan concentrations and depressive symptoms in cancer patients undergoing cytokine therapy.

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  • 1INSERM-INRA, Integrative Neurobiology, Institut Fran├žois Magendie, 33077 Bordeaux, France.


Cytokine therapy for cancer or viral diseases is accompanied by the development of depressive symptoms in a significant proportion of patients. Despite the increasing number of studies on the neurotoxic effects of cytokines, the mechanisms by which cytokines induce depressive symptoms remain largely unknown. In view of the relationship between neurotransmitter precursors and mood, the present study aimed at assessing the relationship between serum concentrations of the amino acids tryptophan and tyrosine, major precursors of serotonin and norepinephrine respectively, and depressive symptoms in cancer patients undergoing cytokine therapy. Sixteen cancer patients eligible to receive immunotherapy with interleukin-2 and/or interferon-alpha participated in the study. At baseline and after one week and one month of therapy, depressive symptoms were assessed using the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS), and blood samples were collected for the determination of the large neutral amino acids (LNAA) (tryptophan, tyrosine, valine, leucine, isoleucine, phenylalanine) which compete for transport across the blood-brain barrier. Serum concentrations of tryptophan as well as the tryptophan/LNAA ratio significantly decreased between baseline, one week and one month of therapy. The development and severity of depressive symptoms, especially anorexia, pessimistic thoughts, suicidal ideation and loss of concentration were positively correlated with the magnitude of the decreases in tryptophan concentrations during treatment. These findings indicate that the development of depressive symptoms in patients undergoing cytokine therapy could be mediated by a reduced availability of the serotonin relevant amino acid precursor, tryptophan.

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