Behavioral effects of plasma tryptophan depletion in aggressive and nonaggressive men

James Matthew Bjork, The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston


Serotonin (5-HT) neurotransmission deficits have been implicated in impulsive aggression. A Trp-free beverage of amino acids competitively inhibits Trp uptake into the brain for 5-HT synthesis and also lowers endogenous plasma Trp for several hours. This has worsened mood and/or increased aggressive behavior, especially in hostile persons or those with histories of depression. In 24 community-recruited men (12 each with and without significant aggression histories), aggressive and impulsive behavior in the laboratory was assessed before and after plasma Trp depletion and Trp loading. In the aggression model, subjects were provoked by periodic subtractions of participation earnings, and these subtractions were blamed on a ficitious other participant. Aggression was measured as the responses the subject made to subtract money from his antagonist. Impulsiveness was operationalized as: (1) the choice of smaller reward after a shorter delay over having to wait longer to receive a larger reward, and (2) “false alarm” commission errors in a modified Continuous Performance Task, which represent a failure to inhibit responding to stimuli similar (but not identical) to target stimuli. Finally, plasma cortisol and Trp were measured under each condition immediately following a aggression testing session when subjects were highly provoked. I hypothesized that 5-HT may tonically modulate (inhibit) the hypothalmnic-pituitary-adrenal stress response, such that Trp depletion may enhance the cortisol response to high provocation in aggressive men. Trp depletion had no effect in the laboratory tasks purported to measure impulsive behavior, and failed to cause increases in aggressive behavior under low provocation conditions. Under higher provocation, however, aggressive responses we re elevated under Trp-depleted conditions relative to Trp-loaded conditions in aggressive men, whereas the reverse was true in nonaggressive men. Cortisol levels nonsignificantly paralled the group differences in aggression under Trp-depleted and Trp-loaded conditions. Aggressive men achieved lower plasma Trp levels after Trp loading than did nonaggressive men, possibly due to heavy alcohol use histories. The high post-loading plasma Trp levels in nonaggressive men tended also to correlate with their aggressive responding rates, due perhaps to increases in other psychoactive Trp metabolites.

Subject Area

Neurology|Behaviorial sciences|Pharmacology

Recommended Citation

Bjork, James Matthew, "Behavioral effects of plasma tryptophan depletion in aggressive and nonaggressive men" (1999). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI9929368.