Serotonin depletion impairs both Pavlovian and instrumental reversal learning in healthy humans

Jonathan W. Kanen, Annemieke M. Apergis-Schoute, Robyn Yellowlees, Fréderique E. Arntz, Febe E. van der Flier, Annabel Price, Rudolf N. Cardinal, David M. Christmas, Luke Clark, Barbara J. Sahakian, Molly J. Crockett, Trevor W. Robbins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Serotonin is involved in updating responses to changing environmental circumstances. Optimising behaviour to maximise reward and minimise punishment may require shifting strategies upon encountering new situations. Likewise, autonomic responses to threats are critical for survival yet must be modified as danger shifts from one source to another. Whilst numerous psychiatric disorders are characterised by behavioural and autonomic inflexibility, few studies have examined the contribution of serotonin in humans. We modelled both processes, respectively, in two independent experiments (N = 97). Experiment 1 assessed instrumental (stimulus-response-outcome) reversal learning whereby individuals learned through trial and error which action was most optimal for obtaining reward or avoiding punishment initially, and the contingencies subsequently reversed serially. Experiment 2 examined Pavlovian (stimulus-outcome) reversal learning assessed by the skin conductance response: one innately threatening stimulus predicted receipt of an uncomfortable electric shock and another did not; these contingencies swapped in a reversal phase. Upon depleting the serotonin precursor tryptophan—in a double-blind randomised placebo-controlled design—healthy volunteers showed impairments in updating both actions and autonomic responses to reflect changing contingencies. Reversal deficits in each domain, furthermore, were correlated with the extent of tryptophan depletion. Initial Pavlovian conditioning, moreover, which involved innately threatening stimuli, was potentiated by depletion. These results translate findings in experimental animals to humans and have implications for the neurochemical basis of cognitive inflexibility.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7200-7210
Number of pages11
JournalMolecular Psychiatry
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2021
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Molecular Biology


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