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J Psychopharmacol. 2013 Oct;27(10):878-93. doi: 10.1177/0269881113499209. Epub 2013 Jul 31.

Tryptophan: the key to boosting brain serotonin synthesis in depressive illness.

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Cardiff Metropolitan University, Cardiff, Wales, UK.


It has been proposed that focusing on brain serotonin synthesis can advance antidepressant drug development. Biochemical aspects of the serotonin deficiency in major depressive disorder (MDD) are discussed here in detail. The deficiency is caused by a decreased availability of the serotonin precursor tryptophan (Trp) to the brain. This decrease is caused by accelerated Trp degradation, most likely induced by enhancement of the hepatic enzyme tryptophan 2,3-dioxygenase (TDO) by glucocorticoids and/or catecholamines. Induction of the extrahepatic Trp-degrading enzyme indolylamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO) by the modest immune activation in MDD has not been demonstrated and, if it occurs, is unlikely to make a significant contribution. Liver TDO appears to be a target of many antidepressants, the mood stabilisers Li(+) and carbamazepine and possibly other adjuncts to antidepressant therapy. The poor, variable and modest antidepressant efficacy of Trp is due to accelerated hepatic Trp degradation, and efficacy can be restored or enhanced by combination with antidepressants or other existing or new TDO inhibitors. Enhancing Trp availability to the brain is thus the key to normalisation of serotonin synthesis and could form the basis for future antidepressant drug development.


Adrenal medullary hormones; antidepressants; cortisol; depression; immune activation; nonesterified fatty acids; serotonin; tryptophan; tryptophan dioxygenase

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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