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Serotonin and Cognitive Flexibility: Neuroimaging Studies into the Effect of Acute Tryptophan Depletion in Healthy Volunteers

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Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adjust behavior to changes in the environment or task conditions. Previous research suggested that serotonin (5-HT) is involved in cognitive flexibility. Disturbed 5-HT functioning in animals, psychiatric patients and healthy volunteers leads to more rigid behavior. A well recognized method to manipulate levels of brain 5-HT is acute tryptophan depletion (ATD). This method induces a transient and reversible lowering of plasma tryptophan that has been shown to result in decreased brain 5- HT. Only recently has ATD research been combined with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). In this review, we discuss recent investigations into the effect of ATD on the Blood Oxygen Level Dependent (BOLD) response during tasks that require cognitive flexibility, in healthy volunteers.

Functional MRI studies have shown that ATD changes brain activation during tasks that require cognitive flexibility. It is hypothesized that ATD changes the processing of negative feedback, rather than impairing response inhibition, impairing the response to an error or the loss of cognitive control during response interference. Although the results of these studies are intriguing, they are sometimes contradictory. This could be the result of the different paradigms that have been used. Importantly, these studies strongly suggest that future multidisciplinary research should evaluate the mechanisms underlying individual differences and control for variables that have been shown to interact with the effect of ATD on cognitive flexibility and the related brain activation.
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Keywords: Serotonin; acute tryptophan depletion; cognitive flexibility; functional neuroimaging

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology (DRT 10), Maastricht University, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Publication date: 2007-12-01

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