Lowering of serotonin by rapid tryptophan depletion increases impulsiveness in normal individuals
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Rationale. Reduced serotonergic activity has been associated with impulsive behavior; however, intervention studies have been scarce.
Objectives. To examine whether induced lowering of serotonin (5-HT) levels would increase behavioral measures of impulsivity.
Methods. Twenty-four healthy young males ingested a mixture of the essential amino acids except for tryptophan in a balanced, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study design. The continuous-performance test–identical pairs was administered when the plasma concentration of tryptophan was expected to be at the lowest point. The plasma concentrations of 23 amino acids were measured at baseline and 5 h after the ingestion of the amino acid mixture.
Results. The intervention led to a dramatic fall in free and total plasma tryptophan, and the tryptophan/large neutral amino acids ratio. This in turn has been shown to lower the level of 5-HT in the central nervous system. The tryptophan depletion resulted in a statistically significant more impulsive- or disinhibited response style on the continuous-performance test–identical pairs when the subjects were solving verbal tasks. Depleted subjects exposed to spatial stimuli had fewer correct responses and a decreased ability to discriminate between stimuli.
Conclusions. These results indicate that a rapid lowering of tryptophan increases impulsiveness and decreases discriminating ability in normal individuals. The effect of 5-HT depletion on discriminating ability in this study was similar to that previously reported in depressed patients.
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