Social cognition is an important cognitive domain substantially influencing social functioning, wellbeing and health. However, there is evidence that social cognition shows a decline in higher ages. On the biological level, there are some hints that social cognition is associated with the serotonin system. Given that the essential amino acid tryptophan is converted into serotonin, a neuroactive substance strongly associated with the processing of social and affective information. Healthy aging is accompanied by a significant loss in serotonin, which might correspond to changes in social cognition and mood.
We suggest that food supplements containing tryptophan may (partially) compensate for the negative consequences of a diminished serotonin system in aging, and consequently, also improve social and affective processing. Using a multidisciplinary and translational approach, we test whether these food supplements promote mentalizing and moral judgments in healthy aging populations. Given that serotonin levels seem to vary between individuals and that the genetic setup of an individual matters more the older he or she gets, we expect these individual genetic differences to affect the degree to which individuals can benefit from our nutritional intervention.
Neurochemical analyses, brain imaging, behavioral tests, and epigenetics (changes in gene methylation triggered by the environment) are used to better understand the mechanisms underlying the interactions between brain, nutritional intervention, and social behavior. If successful, this approach can provide an important step towards developing food programs that are tailored to individual needs and help to promote healthy aging.