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


Abstract Serotonin is implicated in aversive processing and updating responses to changing environmental circumstances. Optimising behaviour to maximise reward and minimise punishment may require shifting strategies upon encountering new situations. Likewise, emotional reactions 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 emotional inflexibility, few studies have examined the contribution of serotonin in humans. We modelled both processes in two independent experiments (N = 97), using instrumental and aversive Pavlovian reversal learning paradigms, respectively. Upon depleting the serotonin precursor tryptophan – in a double-blind randomised placebo-controlled design – healthy volunteers showed impairments in updating both behaviour and emotion to reflect changing contingencies. Reversal deficits in each domain, furthermore, were correlated with the extent of tryptophan depletion. These results translate findings in experimental animals to humans and have implications for the neurochemical basis of cognitive inflexibility.