Evaluating the role of serotonin on neuropsychological function after breast cancer using acute tryptophan depletion

Diane Von Ah, Todd Skaar, Fredrick Unverzagt, Menggang Yu, Jingwei Wu, Bryan Schneider, Anna Maria Storniolo, Lyndsi Moser, Kristin Ryker, Jennifer Milata, Janet S. Carpenter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

2 Scopus citations


Although cognitive dysfunction is a prevalent and disruptive problem for many breast cancer survivors (BCSs), little research has examined its etiology. One potential mechanism that remains to be explored is serotonin. Serotonin has been implicated in normal and dysfunctional cognitive processes, and serotonin levels are significantly affected by estrogen withdrawal, a common side effect of breast cancer treatment. However, no study has evaluated serotonin's role on cognitive dysfunction in BCSs. The purpose of this study was to examine the role of serotonin in cognitive dysfunction in survivors by lowering central serotonin concentrations via acute tryptophan depletion (ATD). Based on previous research in noncancer populations, we hypothesized that alterations in central serotonin levels would induce cognitive dysfunction in these women controlling for confounding characteristics such as fluctuating mood and glucose levels. Secondarily, we explored whether genetic variations in serotonin genes would partly explain ATD. Participants included 20 female BCSs, posttreatment for nonmetastatic breast cancer, who received ATD or control in a double-blind, crossover design. Cognitive performance was measured at the 5-hr tryptophan/serotonin nadir on each test day using standardized neuropsychological tests. Specific impairment was noted in episodic memory (delayed recall) and motor speed during ATD versus control. ATD did not alter new learning (immediate recall), working memory, verbal fluency, or information processing speed. Findings suggest that serotonin may play a critical role in memory consolidation and motor functioning in BCSs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5-15
Number of pages11
JournalBiological Research for Nursing
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012


  • attention
  • breast cancer
  • cognition
  • serotonin
  • tryptophan depletion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Research and Theory

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