Tryptophan Modulation and Cognition

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Abstract

The interest in the function of the serotonergic system in relation to cognition stems from three sources: (1) the association of depression, cognitive dysfunction and 5-HT dysregulation; (2) the association of drug-induced 5-HT dysregulation and cognitive dysfunction; and (3) the association of cognitive performance and serotonergic function per se. We performed several experiments in subjects at risk for cognitive impairment and in healthy volunteers, in which 5-HT was manipulated by means of either tryptophan depletion or tryptophan loading. The results show that tryptophan and cognitive performance are associated in a complex non-linear fashion. Dissociations are observed between cognitive functions: tryptophan depletion impairs memory consolidation but improves focussed attention; as well as between subject groups: tryptophan depletion impairs problem solving in healthy 1st degree relatives of bipolar depressed patients but improves it in healthy volunteers without such a family history. It was demonstrated that the mood-and memory effects of tryptophan-depletion were specifically mediated by the depletion of tryptophan and also that the observed memory and cognitive deficits were emotionally biased in a manner consistent with depressive symptoms. We conclude that experimental manipulations of tryptophan mediate temporal and frontal cognitive functions such as memory consolidation and working memory respectively, in an opposite manner.