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RATIONALE: Serotonergic processes have been implicated in the modulation of fear conditioning in humans, postulated to occur at the level of the amygdala. The processing of other fear-relevant cues, such as facial expressions, has also been associated with amygdala function, but an effect of serotonin depletion on these processes has not been assessed. OBJECTIVE: The present study investigated the effects of reducing serotonin function, using acute tryptophan depletion, on the recognition of basic facial expressions of emotions in healthy male and female volunteers. METHODS: A double-blind between-groups design was used, with volunteers being randomly allocated to receive an amino acid drink specifically lacking tryptophan or a control mixture containing a balanced mixture of these amino acids. Participants were given a facial expression recognition task 5 h after drink administration. This task featured examples of six basic emotions (fear, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness and happiness) that had been morphed between each full emotion and neutral in 10% steps. As a control, volunteers were given a famous face classification task matched in terms of response selection and difficulty level. RESULTS: Tryptophan depletion significantly impaired the recognition of fearful facial expressions in female, but not male, volunteers. This was specific since recognition of other basic emotions was comparable in the two groups. There was also no effect of tryptophan depletion on the classification of famous faces or on subjective state ratings of mood or anxiety. CONCLUSIONS: These results confirm a role for serotonin in the processing of fear related cues, and in line with previous findings also suggest greater effects of tryptophan depletion in female volunteers. Although acute tryptophan depletion does not typically affect mood in healthy subjects, the present results suggest that subtle changes in the processing of emotional material may occur with this manipulation of serotonin function.

Original publication




Journal article


Psychopharmacology (Berl)

Publication Date





411 - 417


Adult, Double-Blind Method, Facial Expression, Fear, Female, Humans, Male, Pattern Recognition, Visual, Serotonin, Sex Factors, Social Perception, Task Performance and Analysis, Tryptophan