Effects of tryptophan depletion and a simulated alcohol binge on impulsivity

Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2015 Apr;23(2):109-21. doi: 10.1037/a0038943. Epub 2015 Mar 2.


Researchers have suggested binge drinkers experience disproportionate increases in impulsivity during the initial period of drinking, leading to a loss of control over further drinking, and that serotonergic mechanisms may underlie such effects. We examined the effects of a simulated alcohol binge and tryptophan depletion on 3 types of impulsivity-response initiation (immediate memory task [IMT]), response inhibition (GoStop task), and delay discounting (single key impulsivity paradigm [SKIP])-and tested whether observed effects were related to real-world binging. Adults (N = 179) with diverse drinking histories completed a within-subject crossover design over 4 experimental days. Each day, participants underwent 1 of 4 test conditions: tryptophan depletion/alcohol, tryptophan depletion/placebo, tryptophan-balanced control/alcohol, or tryptophan-balanced control/placebo. The simulated binge involved consuming 0.3 g/kg of alcohol at 5, 6, and 7 hr after consuming the tryptophan-depletion/balanced mixture. Impulsivity was measured before and after each drink. Relative to the placebo beverage condition, when alcohol was consumed, impulsive responding was increased at moderate and high levels of intoxication on the IMT and the GoStop but only at high levels of intoxication on the SKIP. Tryptophan depletion had no effect on impulsivity. Effects of alcohol and tryptophan manipulations on impulsivity were unrelated to patterns of binge drinking outside the laboratory. The effects of alcohol consumption on impulsivity depend on the component of impulsivity and the dose of alcohol consumed. Such effects do not appear to be a result of reduced serotonin synthesis. In addition, real-world binge drinking behaviors were unrelated to behavioral changes observed in the laboratory.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Beverages
  • Binge Drinking / diagnosis
  • Binge Drinking / metabolism*
  • Binge Drinking / psychology*
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / physiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Tryptophan / deficiency*


  • Tryptophan