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Keywords:

  • attention;
  • fear;
  • fear-potentiated startle;
  • human;
  • regional cerebral blood flow

Abstract

The human startle response is modulated by emotional experiences, with startle potentiation associated with negative affect. We used positron emission tomography with 15O-water to study neural networks associated with startle modulation by phobic fear in a group of subjects with specific snake or spider phobia, but not both, during exposure to pictures of their feared and non-feared objects, paired and unpaired with acoustic startle stimuli. Measurement of eye electromyographic activity confirmed startle potentiation during the phobic as compared with the non-phobic condition. Employing a factorial design, we evaluated brain correlates of startle modulation as the interaction between startle and affect, using the double subtraction contrast (phobic startle vs. phobic alone) vs. (non-phobic startle vs. non-phobic alone). As a result of startle potentiation, a significant increase in regional cerebral blood flow was found in the left amygdaloid–hippocampal region, and medially in the affective division of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). These results provide evidence from functional brain imaging for a modulatory role of the amygdaloid complex on startle reactions in humans. They also point to the involvement of the affective ACC in the processing of startle stimuli during emotionally aversive experiences. The co-activation of these areas may reflect increased attention to fear-relevant stimuli. Thus, we suggest that the amygdaloid area and the ACC form part of a neural system dedicated to attention and orientation to danger, and that this network modulates startle during negative affect.