Effects of acute tryptophan depletion on memory, attention and executive functions: a systematic review

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2009 Jun;33(6):926-52. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.03.006. Epub 2009 Mar 18.


The serotonergic system is implicated in the regulation of mood and cognition. Acute tryptophan depletion (ATD) is an experimental procedure for lowering central serotonin levels. Here, the effects of ATD on psychomotor processing, declarative memory, working memory, executive functions and attention are discussed. The most robust finding is that ATD impairs the consolidation of episodic memory for verbal information. Semantic memory appears to be unaffected by ATD although a limited variety of tasks examined effects in this domain. Similarly, evidence suggests ATD does not influence verbal, spatial and affective working memory. Most studies investigating effects on executive functions have produced non-specific or negative findings. In terms of attention, ATD either does not affect or may improve focused attention and ATD likely does not impact sustained and divided attention or attentional set-shifting. Although ATD is known to affect mood in certain vulnerable populations, the effects of ATD on cognition in non-vulnerable participants are independent of mood changes. Suggestions for future directions and implications for psychiatric illnesses are discussed.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Semantics
  • Serotonin / metabolism
  • Space Perception / physiology
  • Tryptophan / metabolism*


  • Serotonin
  • Tryptophan