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Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2001 Mar;154(3):319-26.

Acute dietary tryptophan depletion impairs maintenance of "affective set" and delayed visual recognition in healthy volunteers.

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Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge CB2 2QQ, UK.



Altered serotonergic transmission in affective disorders and Alzheimer's disease has prompted research aimed at defining the precise cognitive effects of depleting central serotonin in humans, using acute dietary tryptophan depletion.


We examined the effects of tryptophan depletion on mood and cognition in healthy volunteers. Cognitive tests of memory and attentional processing were employed to test hypotheses of central 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) function related to cortical processing.


A double-blind, parallel design, placebo control study was employed with 15 subjects in each group. Mood rating scales were performed at the start and 5 h after ingestion of the drink. Cognitive tests were also performed at 5 h, after completion of the subjective rating scales.


A robust reduction in total tryptophan was achieved in the test group. Subjects receiving the placebo drink showed the expected effect of shift on the affective shifting task, that is, more errors in the more difficult shift versus the non-shift condition. The tryptophan-depleted group made a similar number of errors in the shift trials but failed to reduce the number of errors in the non-shift trials. The tryptophan-depleted group showed a significant impairment on the delayed pattern recognition task. No significant effects on the subjective mood measures were found.


Tryptophan depletion abolished the normal tendency to improve error scores on non-shift trials in response to affective cues on a go/no-go task. We suggest that this inability to "maintain set" in the non-shift condition may be due to a disruption of semantic retrieval processes concerned with affect. The novel finding of impairment on a delayed visual pattern recognition task confirms and extends previous studies where selective effects on memory and learning have been found following acute tryptophan depletion.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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