Acute tryptophan depletion in humans: a review of theoretical, practical and ethical aspects

J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2013 Sep;38(5):294-305. doi: 10.1503/jpn.120209.


The acute tryptophan depletion (ATD) technique has been used extensively to study the effect of low serotonin in the human brain. This review assesses the validity of a number of published criticisms of the technique and a number of previously unpublished potential criticisms. The conclusion is that ATD can provide useful information when results are assessed in conjunction with results obtained using other techniques. The best-established conclusion is that low serotonin function after tryptophan depletion lowers mood in some people. However, this does not mean that other variables, altered after tryptophan depletion, are necessarily related to low serotonin. Each aspect of brain function has to be assessed separately. Furthermore, a negative tryptophan depletion study does not mean that low serotonin cannot influence the variable studied. This review suggests gaps in knowledge that need to be filled and guidelines for carrying out ATD studies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affect / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Bioethical Issues*
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Food, Formulated / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Serotonin / metabolism
  • Serotonin / physiology*
  • Tryptophan / deficiency*
  • Tryptophan / metabolism


  • Serotonin
  • Tryptophan