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Keywords:

  • Alcohol dependence;
  • cue modulation;
  • family history of alcoholism;
  • sensitivity to punishment;
  • sensitivity to reward;
  • startle reflex

ABSTRACT

Cue modulation of the startle reflex is a paradigm that has been used to understand the emotional mechanisms involved in alcohol dependence. Attenuation of the startle reflex has been demonstrated when alcohol-dependent subjects are exposed to alcohol-related stimuli. However, the role of clinical variables on the magnitude of this response is unknown. The objective of this study was to determine the relationship between a number of clinical variables—severity of alcoholism, family history of alcoholism (FHA+), personality traits related to the sensitivity to reward—and the startle reflex response when subjects with alcohol dependence were viewing alcohol-related cues. After detoxification, 98 participants completed self-report instruments and had eye blink electromyograms measured to acoustic startle probes [100-millisecond burst of white noise at 95 dB(A)] while viewing alcohol-related pictures, and standardised appetitive, aversive and neutral control scenes. Ninety-eight healthy controls were also assessed with the same instruments. There were significant differences on alcohol-startle magnitude between patients and controls. Comparisons by gender showed that women perceived alcohol cues and appetitive cues more appetitive than men. Male and female patients showed more appetitive responses to alcohol cues when compared with their respective controls. Our patients showed an appetitive effect of alcohol cues that was positively related to severity of alcohol dependence, sensitivity to reward and a FHA+. The data confirmed that the pattern of the modulation of the acoustic startle reflex reveals appetitive effects of the alcohol cues and extended it to a variety of clinical variables.