Pharmacology, biochemistry, and behavior

Age moderates the effect of acute dopamine depletion on passive avoidance learning.

PMID 25636601


Despite extensive links between reinforcement-based learning and dopamine (DA), studies to date have not found consistent effects of acute DA reduction on reinforcement learning in both men and women. Here, we tested the effects of reducing DA on reward- and punishment-based learning using the deterministic passive avoidance learning (PAL) task. We tested 16 (5 female) adults (ages 22-40) in a randomized, cross-over design to determine whether reducing global DA by administering an amino acid beverage deficient in the DA precursors, phenylalanine and tyrosine (P/T[-]), would affect PAL task performance. We found that P/T[-] beverage effects on PAL performance were modulated by age. Specifically, we found that P/T depletion significantly improved learning from punishment with increasing participant age. Participants committed 1.49 fewer passive avoidance errors per additional year of age (95% CI, -0.71 - -2.27, r=-0.74, p=0.001). Moreover, P/T depletion improved learning from punishment in adults (ages 26-40) while it impaired learning from punishment in emerging adults (ages 22-25). We observed similar, but non-significant trends in learning from reward. While there was no overall effect of P/T-depletion on reaction time (RT), there was a relationship between the effect of P/T depletion on PAL performance and RT; those who responded more slowly on the P/T[-] beverage also made more errors on the P/T[-] beverage. When P/T-depletion slowed RT after a correct response, there was a worsening of PAL task performance; there was no similar relationship for the RT after an incorrect response and PAL task performance. Moreover, among emerging adults, changes in mood on the P/T[-] beverage negatively correlated with learning from reward on the P/T[-] beverage. Together, we found that both reward- and punishment-based learning are sensitive to central catecholamine levels, and that these effects of acute DA reduction vary with age.