Dopamine and light: dissecting effects on mood and motivational states in women with subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder

J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2013 Nov;38(6):388-97. doi: 10.1503/jpn.120181.


Background: Despite evidence that bright light can improve mood, the neurobiology remains poorly understood. Some evidence implicates the catecholamines. In the present study, we measured the effects of transiently decreasing dopamine (DA) synthesis on mood and motivational states in healthy women with mild seasonal mood changes who were tested in either bright or dim light.

Methods: On 2 test days, participants slept overnight in a light-controlled room. On the morning of each session, half of the participants awoke to gradual increases of bright light, up to 3000 lux, and half to dim light (10 lux). For all participants, DA was reduced on 1 of the test days using the acute phenylalanine/tyrosine depletion (APTD) method; on the other day, they ingested a nutritionally balanced control mixture (BAL). Beginning 4 hours postingestion, participants completed subjective mood questionnaires, psychological tests and a progressive ratio breakpoint task during which they worked for successive units of $5.

Results: Thirty-two women participated in our study. The APTD lowered mood, agreeableness, energy and the willingness to work for monetary reward. The effects on energy and motivation were independent of light, while the effects on mood and agreeableness were seen in the dim condition only, being prevented by bright light.

Limitations: Acute phenylalanine/tyrosine depletion might affect systems other than DA. The sample size was small.

Conclusion: These results suggest that increased DA function may be responsible for some of the beneficial effects of light, while adding to the evidence that the neurobiology of mood and motivational states can be dissociated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / drug effects
  • Affect / physiology*
  • Dopamine / deficiency
  • Dopamine / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Light*
  • Motivation / drug effects
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Phenylalanine / blood
  • Phenylalanine / pharmacology
  • Psychomotor Performance / drug effects
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Reward
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder / diagnosis
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder / metabolism
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder / psychology*
  • Tyrosine / blood
  • Tyrosine / pharmacology


  • Tyrosine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Dopamine