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Am J Psychiatry. 1999 Nov;156(11):1771-9.

Behavioral disinhibition induced by tryptophan depletion in nonalcoholic young men with multigenerational family histories of paternal alcoholism.

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Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montréal, Qué., Canada.



A deficit in serotonergic neurotransmission has been linked to impulsive behavior, as well as to disorders characterized by disinhibition. The present study tested the hypothesis that young men at high risk for alcoholism demonstrate greater behavioral disinhibition after acute dietary depletion of tryptophan, the amino acid precursor of serotonin.


A double-blind, placebo-comparison, between-subjects study design was used. Nonalcoholic young men with a multigenerational paternal family history of alcoholism (N = 13) or with no family history of alcoholism (N = 15) in two previous generations were administered mixtures of tryptophan-deficient amino acid to achieve plasma tryptophan depletion. Comparison subjects with a multigenerational paternal family history of alcoholism (N = 1) and comparison subjects with no family history of alcoholism (N = 18) were given a balanced mixture. Five hours after this, all were tested on a modified Taylor task and a go/ no-go task measuring aggressive response and disinhibition, respectively.


Plasma tryptophan levels were reduced by 89% in both groups. Tryptophan depletion had no effect on aggressive response. In contrast, tryptophan-depleted individuals with a family history of alcoholism made more commission errors (responses to stimuli associated with punishment or loss of reward) than did tryptophan-depleted individuals with no family history of alcoholism and those receiving the balanced (comparison) mixture of amino acid in either group.


Low serotonin levels may be implicated in the high disinhibition or impulsivity observed in some individuals with a genetic vulnerability to alcohol abuse or dependence.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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