Clinical and physiological consequences of rapid tryptophan depletion

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2000 Dec;23(6):601-22. doi: 10.1016/S0893-133X(00)00161-5.


We review here the rapid tryptophan depletion (RTD) methodology and its controversial association with depressive relapse. RTD has been used over the past decade to deplete serotonin (5-hydroxy-tryptamine, or 5-HT) in humans and to probe the role of the central serotonin system in a variety of psychiatric conditions. Its current popularity was stimulated by reports that RTD reversed the antidepressant effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) in remitted patients with a history of depression but not in patients treated with antidepressants which promote catecholaminergic rather than serotonergic neurotransmission (such as tricyclic antidepressants or buproprion). However, RTD has inconsistent effects in terms of full clinical relapse in depressed patients. Pooling the data from all published reports, patients who are either unmedicated and/or fully remitted are much less likely to experience relapse (7 of 61, or approximately 9%) than patients who are recently medicated and partially remitted (63 of 133, or approximately 47%; although, the numbers here may reflect patient overlap between reports). Recently remitted patients who have been treated with non-pharmacological therapies such as total sleep deprivation, electroconvulsive therapy, or bright light therapy also do not commonly show full clinical relapse with RTD. We briefly review RTD effects in other psychiatric disorders, many of which are treated with SSRIs. There is accumulating evidence to suggest that RTD affects central serotonergic neurotransmission. Nevertheless, many questions remain about the ability of RTD to reverse the beneficial effects of SSRIs or MAOIs, or to induce symptoms in unmedicated symptomatic or asymptomatic patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antidepressive Agents / classification
  • Antidepressive Agents / metabolism
  • Antidepressive Agents / pharmacology
  • Depression / drug therapy
  • Depression / metabolism*
  • Depression / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Food, Formulated / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / cytology
  • Neural Pathways / drug effects
  • Neural Pathways / metabolism
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Raphe Nuclei / cytology
  • Raphe Nuclei / drug effects
  • Raphe Nuclei / metabolism
  • Secondary Prevention
  • Serotonin / metabolism*
  • Tryptophan / blood
  • Tryptophan / deficiency*


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Serotonin
  • Tryptophan