Tryptophan depletion impairs memory consolidation but improves focussed attention in healthy young volunteers

J Psychopharmacol. 2000 Mar;14(1):21-9. doi: 10.1177/026988110001400102.


Animal and human studies have provided evidence for serotonergic modulation of cognitive processes. However, the exact nature of this relationship is not clear. We used the acute tryptophan depletion (ATD) method to investigate the effects of lowered serotonin synthesis on cognitive functions in 17 healthy young volunteers. The study was conducted according to a placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover design. Cognitive performance and mood were assessed at baseline and 5 and 9 h after administration of ATD. A specific impairment of word recognition, without effects on short-term memory, occurred during ATD. No memory deficits were seen if ATD was induced after acquisition of new words. The Stroop Test and dichotic listening task demonstrated a modality independent improvement of focussed attention after ATD. Fluency was also improved after ATD. ATD did not alter speed of information processing, divided attention or planning functions. These results indicate that serotonin is essential in the process of long-term memory consolidation, primarily in the first 30 min after acquisition. Improvement of specific cognitive processes by lowered 5-HT function may be linked to the removal of inhibitory actions of 5-HT in the cortex.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Controlled Clinical Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology
  • Amino Acids / administration & dosage
  • Amino Acids / blood
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Problem Solving / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Retention, Psychology / physiology*
  • Serotonin / physiology*
  • Tryptophan / deficiency*
  • Verbal Learning / physiology


  • Amino Acids
  • Serotonin
  • Tryptophan