Tryptophan-enriched diet or 5-hydroxytryptophan supplementation given in a randomized controlled trial impacts social cognition on a neural and behavioral level

Sci Rep. 2021 Nov 4;11(1):21637. doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-01164-y.


Understanding of emotions and intentions are key processes in social cognition at which serotonin is an important neuromodulator. Its precursor is the essential amino acid tryptophan (TRP). Reduced TRP availability leads to weaker impulse control ability and higher aggression, while TRP supplementation promotes confidence. In a double-blind placebo-controlled fMRI study with 77 healthy adults, we investigated the influence of a 4 week TRP enriched diet and an acute 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) intake on two social-cognitive tasks, a moral evaluation and an emotion recognition task. With 5-HTP, immoral behavior without negative consequences was rated as more reprehensible. Additionally, during story reading, activation in insula and supramarginal gyrus was increased after TRP intake. No significant effects of TRP on emotion recognition were identified for the whole sample. Importantly, emotion recognition ability decreased with age which was for positive emotions compensated by TRP. Since the supramarginal gyrus is associated with empathy, pain and related information integration results could be interpreted as reflecting stricter evaluation of negative behavior due to better integration of information. Improved recognition of positive emotions with TRP in older participants supports the use of a TRP-rich diet to compensate for age related decline in social-cognitive processes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • 5-Hydroxytryptophan / metabolism
  • 5-Hydroxytryptophan / pharmacology
  • Adult
  • Affect / drug effects
  • Cognition / drug effects
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Emotions / drug effects*
  • Female
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / metabolism
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / pharmacology
  • Placebos
  • Recognition, Psychology / drug effects
  • Serotonin / metabolism
  • Social Cognition*
  • Tryptophan / metabolism
  • Tryptophan / pharmacology*


  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Placebos
  • Serotonin
  • Tryptophan
  • 5-Hydroxytryptophan