5-HTP and Creatine for Depression

  • End date
    Jul 31, 2025
  • participants needed
  • sponsor
    University of Utah
Updated on 11 May 2021


This is a three-armed clinical trial examining the effect of 5-hydroxytryptophan and creatine monohydrate as augmenting agents for the treatment of depression. Subjects will be randomized between 5-HTP + placebo, creatine + placebo, and 5-HTP + creatine, for 8 weeks. The ability of the interventions to affect biomarkers associated with depression will be assessed using brain phosophorus magnetic resonance spectroscopy, functional connectivity imaging, and plasma serotonin levels.


Major depressive disorder (MDD) has a lifetime prevalence of over 16%1 and is associated with reduced work productivity,2 disability,3 increased mortality,4 and increased rates of suicide attempts5 and completed suicides.6 Unfortunately, ~34% fail to respond to standard ADs (ADs).7 Environmental and patient-level factors that increase the risk of MDD could pinpoint novel mechanisms underlying the disorder. One such factor may be relative hypoxia. Persons with hypoxic medical conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are at higher risk of depression and suicide compared to those with other chronic medical conditions.8-12 Smoking also promotes hypoxia13 and is linked to increased risks of suicide and depression.14-16 Of special relevance to this study, living at high altitude produces relative hypoxia even after months,17 and is linked to increased risks of suicide18-22 and depression.23,24 Hypoxia could contribute to MDD in at least two ways. First, brain bioenergetics are altered in both hypoxia and MDD. Hypoxia reduces several neurochemical markers of brain activity, including phosphocreatine (PCr) and n-acetylaspartate (NAA),25 and alters mitochondrial dynamics in the hippocampus.26,27 Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS) shows that high-altitude residents have altered whole brain pH and reduced inorganic phosphate to total phosphate (tP) ratios compared to persons dwelling at sea-level.28 In depressed patients, phosphorus MRS (31P-MRS) shows reduced nucleotide triphosphate (NTP) concentrations and decreased PCr concentrations; AD response is associated with increases in PCr and NTP.29 Hypoxia could also promote MDD by altering serotonin (5-HT) production. Chronic hypoxia reduces 5-HT in the forebrain and brainstem in rodents.30 The conversion of tryptophan to 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) by tryptophan hydroxylase is oxygen-dependent and slowed by hypoxia.31,32 Animal studies have shown that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are not as effective at altitude,33 possibly because of inadequate 5-HT production. Reductions in 5-HT synthesis and inefficiencies in bioenergetics could both contribute to altered brain functional connectivity. MDD may disrupt cortical emotion regulation,34 and resting state functional connectivity (fcMRI) studies suggest that depression involves reduced connectivity between frontal cortical regions and the amygdala,35 while AD response correlates with normalization of those connections.36 Alterations in connectivity associated with AD response are correlated with changes in brain metabolites,37 suggesting a link to brain bioenergetics.

This suggests two natural supplements as interventions for depression. Oral creatine monohydrate (Cr) could improve bioenergetics in MDD, as Cr alters brain tCr, PCr, and NTP levels.38 Moreover, Cr produces improvements in mood39 correlated with normalization of PCr levels40 and structural connectivity.41 Alterations in 5-HT synthesis due to hypoxia could be rectified by 5-HTP, as its conversion to 5-HT is not oxygen-dependent. 5-HTP elevates brain 5-HT levels and has AD efficacy in clinical trials.42 The proposed study is a two-phase, three-armed trial to evaluate whether SSRI/SNRI augmentation with the supplements Cr, 5-HTP, or their combination (5-HTP+Cr) can enhance AD response in treatment-resistant MDD. In the R61 phase, the study will assess the ability of the interventions to alter biological signatures associated with depression, as measured by 31P-MRS, fcMRI, and changes in whole blood 5-HT. In the R33 phase, the study will attempt to replicate the above findings and evaluate their correlation with clinical outcomes. The study will have the following aims:

  • Aim 1 (R61+R33): To identify 31P-MRS correlates of AD response in subjects with MDD receiving Cr, 5-HTP, or 5-HTP+Cr. It is hypothesized that subjects' frontal cortical metabolism will normalize compared to controls over 8 weeks in those receiving Cr or 5-HTP+Cr but not those receiving only 5-HTP.
  • Aim 2 (R61+R33): To identify resting state fcMRI correlates of AD response in subjects with MDD receiving Cr, 5-HTP, or 5-HTP+Cr. It is hypothesized that resting functional connectivity in prefrontal regions will normalize (with improvement in hypoconnectivity between subgenual cingulate cortex and the remaining brain) over 8 weeks in all treatment groups compared to controls, with the greatest changes in the 5-HTP+Cr group.
  • Aim 3 (R61+R33: To characterize changes in whole blood 5-HT levels in study participants. It is hypothesized that whole blood 5-HT will increase over 8 weeks in subjects receiving 5-HTP or 5-HTP+Cr, but not those receiving only Cr.
  • Aim 4 (R33): To describe changes in HAM-D scores in study participants randomized between SSRI/SNRI augmentation with 5-HTP, Cr, or 5-HTP+Cr. It is hypothesized that HAM-D scores will improve over 8 weeks in all treatment groups, with the greatest changes in the 5-HTP+Cr group.

Study results will help elucidate the potential efficacy of a novel combination of nutritional supplements in persons with MDD, given strong epidemiologic and physiologic evidence suggesting that relative hypoxia can contribute to depression through alterations in brain bioenergetics and 5-HT synthesis. Target engagement will be indicated by improvements in functional connectivity and frontal cortical energy metabolism.

Condition Major depression, Endogenous depression, major depressive disorder, major depressive disorders
Treatment Placebo, Creatine Monohydrate, 5-Hydroxytryptophan 100 MG, placebo matched to 5-HTP
Clinical Study IdentifierNCT04395183
SponsorUniversity of Utah
Last Modified on11 May 2021


Yes No Not Sure

Inclusion Criteria

Adults age 25-40 years inclusive
Current diagnosis of MDD identified by the SCID-5
Current HAM-D17 score of > 16
Adequate adherence to any FDA approved SSRI or SNRI for at least 8 weeks
Residing at > 4000 ft for at least 12 weeks

Exclusion Criteria

Any non-MDD and non-anxiety psychiatric diagnosis, as identified by the SCID-5
History of or current diagnosis of renal disease, such as chronic renal failure, acute renal failure or end stage renal disease
Current colitis or diverticulitis
History of or current pulmonary disease
Current smoking
History of cardiac disease or QTc > 500ms
History of fibromyalgia or any rheumatological condition
History of or current seizure disorder
Current serious suicide risk identified by the Columbia Severity Suicide Rating Scale
Current treatment with an antipsychotic, mood stabilizer, or non-SSRI or SNRI antidepressant except for bupropion at FDA-approved doses or trazodone up to 200mg, or use of any supplements apart from standard multivitamins
Positive pregnancy test, pregnancy, failure to use adequate birth control method
Previous diagnosis of serotonin syndrome or evidence of serotonin syndrome
Pre-existing eosinophilia (absolute eosinophil count > 500/uL)
Contraindications to MRI: ferromagnetic implants, implanted devices, claustrophobia
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