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Studies using acute tryptophan depletion (ATD) to examine the effects of a rapid reduction in serotonin function have shown a reduction in global cognitive status during ATD in Alzheimer's disease (AD) and Parkinson's disease (PD). Based on the severe cholinergic loss evident in dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) and Parkinson's disease and dementia (PDD), we predicted that a reduction of global cognitive status during ATD would be greater in these conditions than in AD.
Patients having DLB or PDD underwent ATD in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized, counterbalanced, crossover design.
While the study intended to test 20 patients, the protocol was poorly tolerated and terminated after six patients attempted, but only four patients – three with DLB and one with PDD – completed the protocol. The Modified Mini-Mental State Examination (3MSE) score was reduced in all three DLB patients and unchanged in the PDD and dementia patient during ATD compared with placebo.
This reduction in global cognitive function and the poor tolerability may fit with the hypothesis that people with dementia with Lewy bodies have sensitivity to the effects of reduced serotonin function.
Studies investigating the cognitive effects of serotonin depletion, using the technique of acute tryptophan depletion (ATD) by dietary means, have generally suggested that ATD impairs delayed verbal recall and recognition. In two previous studies in the elderly, this result has not been replicated and ATD impaired working memory. These results may be susceptible to type II error but a similar testing schedule in the individual studies allows data to be pooled in a larger analysis.
Data from two separate double-blind placebo-controlled studies of the effects of ATD on cognitive function in the elderly were combined. In one study, a low dose and in the other a high dose of amino acids was used. In a repeated measures analysis of variance, the effects of ATD and the interaction of this with the other factors (age, gender and dose) on cognitive measures was examined.
Data from 31 healthy subjects aged between 60 and 81 years were analysed. There were no main effects of ATD or consistent interactions between ATD and age, gender or dose. There were significant interactions between ATD, gender and dose. When tryptophan depleted, females having the higher dose drink had reduced scores on Digit span and immediate recall on the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test.
The enlarged data set did not confirm an overall effect of ATD on working memory or on delayed word recall but does suggest an effect of ATD on encoding or registration in the subgroup of females receiving a higher strength drink.
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