Catecholaminergic modulation of the cost of cognitive control in healthy older adults

PLoS One. 2020 Feb 21;15(2):e0229294. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0229294. eCollection 2020.


Catecholamines have long been associated with cognitive control and value-based decision-making. More recently, we have shown that catecholamines also modulate value-based decision-making about whether or not to engage in cognitive control. Yet it is unclear whether catecholamines influence these decisions by altering the subjective value of control. Thus, we tested whether tyrosine, a catecholamine precursor altered the subjective value of performing a demanding working memory task among healthy older adults (60-75 years). Contrary to our prediction, tyrosine administration did not significantly increase the subjective value of conducting an N-back task for reward, as a main effect. Instead, in line with our previous study, exploratory analyses indicated that drug effects varied as a function of participants' trait impulsivity scores. Specifically, tyrosine increased the subjective value of conducting an N-back task in low impulsive participants, while reducing its value in more impulsive participants. One implication of these findings is that the over-the-counter tyrosine supplements may be accompanied by an undermining effect on the motivation to perform demanding cognitive tasks, at least in certain older adults. Taken together, these findings indicate that catecholamines can alter cognitive control by modulating motivation (rather than just the ability) to exert cognitive control.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Catecholamines / metabolism*
  • Cognition / drug effects
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Decision Making / drug effects
  • Female
  • Healthy Volunteers*
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / drug effects
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Tyrosine / pharmacology


  • Catecholamines
  • Tyrosine

Grants and funding

Roshan Cools (RC) James McDonnell Scholar Award (220020328) from James C. McDonnell Foundation ( Vici Award (453.14.015) from Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO; Esther Aarts (EA) European Regional Development Fund and the Dutch provinces Gelderland and Overijssel Grant 2011-017004 (FOCOM; Sponsors did not play roles in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of manuscript.