Effects of serotonin depletion on punishment processing in the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortices of healthy women

K. Helmbold, M. Zvyagintsev, B. Dahmen, S. Bubenzer-Busch, T. J. Gaber, M. J. Crockett, M. Klasen, C. L. Sánchez, A. Eisert, K. Konrad, U. Habel, B. Herpertz-Dahlmann, F. D. Zepf

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25 Scopus citations


Diminished synthesis of the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT) has been linked to disrupted impulse control in aversive contexts. However, the neural correlates underlying a serotonergic modulation of female impulsivity remain unclear. The present study investigated punishment-induced inhibition in healthy young women. Eighteen healthy female subjects (aged 20-31) participated in a double-blinded, counterbalanced, placebo-controlled, within subjects, repeated measures study. They were assessed on two randomly assigned occasions that were controlled for menstrual cycle phase. In a randomized order, one day, acute tryptophan depletion (ATD) was used to reduce 5-HT synthesis in the brain. On the other day, participants received a tryptophan-balanced amino acid load (BAL) as a control condition. Three hours after administration of ATD/BAL, neural activity was recorded during a modified Go/No-Go task implementing reward or punishment processes using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Neural activation during No-Go trials in punishment conditions after BAL versus ATD administration correlated positively with the magnitude of central 5-HT depletion in the ventral and subgenual anterior cingulate cortices (ACC). Furthermore, neural activation in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) and the dorsal ACC correlated positively with trait impulsivity. The results indicate reduced neural sensitivity to punishment after short-term depletion of 5-HT in brain areas related to emotion regulation (subgenual ACC) increasing with depletion magnitude and in brain areas related to appraisal and expression of emotions (mOFC and dorsal ACC), increasing with trait impulsivity. This suggests a serotonergic modulation of neural circuits related to emotion regulation, impulsive behavior, and punishment processing in females.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)846-856
Number of pages11
JournalEuropean Neuropsychopharmacology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pharmacology
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Pharmacology (medical)


  • Go/No-Go
  • Impulsivity
  • Serotonin
  • Tryptophan depletion


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