Exercise increases tryptophan availability to the brain in older men age 57-70 years

Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 May;44(5):881-7. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31823ede8e.


Purpose: Many aspects of serotonergic activity, both central and peripheral in origin, undergo significant changes with human aging. These alterations might predispose elderly people to develop mood disorders. Because previous work showed that increasing the peripheral availability of tryptophan (TRP) to the brain holds antidepressant properties, this study evaluated whether TRP availability to the brain is increased during prolonged exercise in older men.

Methods: Nineteen males age 64 ± 3 yr completed a treadmill exercise bout at an HR eliciting ∼68% V˙O(2peak) for 60 min. Fasting blood was collected at rest, after 30 and 60 min of exercise, and at 90 min (after exercise). Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), total and free TRP, prolactin, ammonia, nonesterified fatty acids, glucose, and lactate were measured.

Results: Changes in free TRP/BCAA ratio and prolactin were used as peripheral proxies of central serotonin synthesis rate and activity. The free TRP/BCAA ratio observed at baseline was increased by 102% after 1 h of exercise (P < 0.0001) and remained elevated after exercise (78% above baseline, P < 0.001). The free TRP portion in serum increased from 2.8 ± 0.7 to 5.7 ± 1.8 μmol·L⁻¹ after 1 h of exercise (P < 0.001) and was strongly correlated with plasma nonesterified fatty acid contents (r₁₇ = 0.887, P < 0.0001, all time points). Serum prolactin was significantly elevated after 1 h of exercise (8.6 ± 2.4 μg·L⁻¹, P < 0.001) and was positively correlated with free TRP/BCAA ratio (r₁₆ = 0.48, P < 0.05, all time points).

Conclusions: These results concur with previous observations in younger men and unveil that significant elevations in TRP availability to the brain are encountered during sustained exercise in older men. These results provide support to the hypothesis that increases in serotonin synthesis and activity might be involved in the antidepressant effect of exercise in the elderly.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Amino Acids, Branched-Chain / blood
  • Ammonia / blood
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Blood Glucose / analysis
  • Body Composition
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Exercise Test
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified / blood
  • Humans
  • Lactates / blood
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prolactin / blood
  • Tryptophan / blood*


  • Amino Acids, Branched-Chain
  • Biomarkers
  • Blood Glucose
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified
  • Lactates
  • Ammonia
  • Tryptophan
  • Prolactin