Enhancing cortical dopamine tone improves working memory in post-traumatic stress disorder

Working memory, cortical dopamine tone, and frontoparietal brain recruitment in post-traumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled trial

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) leads to impairments in both cognitive and affective functioning. Animal work suggests that chronic stress reduces dopamine tone, and both animal and human studies argue that changes in dopamine tone influence working memory, a core executive function. These findings give rise to the hypothesis that increasing cortical dopamine tone in individuals with greater PTSD symptomatology should improve working memory performance. In this pharmacological functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, 30 US military veterans exhibiting a range of PTSD severity completed an emotional working memory task. Each subject received both placebo and the catechol-O-methyl transferase inhibitor tolcapone, which increases cortical dopamine tone, in randomized, double-blind, counterbalanced fashion. Mnemonic discriminability (calculated with d’, an index of the detectability of working memory signals) and response bias were evaluated in the context of task-related brain activations. Subjects with more severe PTSD showed both greater tolcapone-mediated improvements in d’ and larger tolcapone-mediated reductions in liberally-biased responding for fearful stimuli. FMRI revealed that tolcapone augmented activity within bilateral frontoparietal control regions during the decision phase of the task. Specifically, tolcapone increased cortical responses to fearful relative to neutral stimuli in higher severity PTSD subjects, and reduced cortical responses to fearful stimuli for lower severity PTSD subjects. Moreover, tolcapone modulated prefrontal connectivity with areas overlapping the default mode network. These findings suggest that enhancing cortical dopamine tone may represent an approach to remediating cognitive and affective dysfunction in individuals with more severe PTSD symptoms.

Westphal et al, Translational Psychiatry, 2021