Tryptophan Metabolism and White Matter Integrity in Schizophrenia

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016 Sep;41(10):2587-95. doi: 10.1038/npp.2016.66. Epub 2016 May 4.


Schizophrenia is associated with abnormalities in the structure and functioning of white matter, but the underlying neuropathology is unclear. We hypothesized that increased tryptophan degradation in the kynurenine pathway could be associated with white matter microstructure and biochemistry, potentially contributing to white matter abnormalities in schizophrenia. To test this, fasting plasma samples were obtained from 37 schizophrenia patients and 38 healthy controls and levels of total tryptophan and its metabolite kynurenine were assessed. The ratio of kynurenine to tryptophan was used as an index of tryptophan catabolic activity in this pathway. White matter structure and function were assessed by diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and (1)H magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS). Tryptophan levels were significantly lower (p<0.001), and kynurenine/tryptophan ratios were correspondingly higher (p=0.018) in patients compared with controls. In patients, lower plasma tryptophan levels corresponded to lower structural integrity (DTI fractional anisotropy) (r=0.347, p=0.038). In both patients and controls, the kynurenine/tryptophan ratio was inversely correlated with frontal white matter glutamate level (r=-0.391 and -0.350 respectively, p=0.024 and 0.036). These results provide initial evidence implicating abnormal tryptophan/kynurenine pathway activity in changes to white matter integrity and white matter glutamate in schizophrenia.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Anisotropy
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Female
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Kynurenine / metabolism
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Schizophrenia / diagnostic imaging
  • Schizophrenia / metabolism*
  • Schizophrenia / pathology*
  • Tryptophan / metabolism*
  • White Matter / diagnostic imaging
  • White Matter / metabolism*
  • Young Adult


  • Kynurenine
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Tryptophan