Altered Emotion-Modulated Startle in Young Adults With a Family History of Alcoholism

Authors

  • Robert Miranda Jr,

    1. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and VA Medical Center (RM, WRL), University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Department of Psychology (RM, LAM), Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma; and Department of Neurology (TWB), University of Iowa College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa.
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  • Lori A. Meyerson,

    1. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and VA Medical Center (RM, WRL), University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Department of Psychology (RM, LAM), Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma; and Department of Neurology (TWB), University of Iowa College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa.
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  • Tony W. Buchanan,

    1. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and VA Medical Center (RM, WRL), University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Department of Psychology (RM, LAM), Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma; and Department of Neurology (TWB), University of Iowa College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa.
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  • William R. Lovallo

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and VA Medical Center (RM, WRL), University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Department of Psychology (RM, LAM), Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma; and Department of Neurology (TWB), University of Iowa College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa.
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  • RM is now at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, Brown University, Box G-BH, Providence, RI 02912.

  • Supported by the Medical Research Service of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation, the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology, and grant AA-05559 from the NIH.

William R. Lovallo, PhD, Veterans Affairs Medical Center (151A), 921 NE 13th Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73104; Fax: 405-279-5909; E-mail: bill@mindbody1.org

Abstract

Background: Alcoholism risk may be accompanied by poor regulation of emotions, signaling altered central nervous system processes. This study used the emotion-modulated startle paradigm to test the hypothesis that young adults with a positive paternal history of alcoholism (FH+), relative to family-history-negative persons (FH−), have altered emotional reactivity to environmental cues.

Methods: We tested 30 FH+ and 30 FH−, 15 males and 15 females in each group. Participants completed self-report instruments and interviews and had eye blink electromyograms (EMG) measured to acoustic startle probes while viewing color photographs rated as affectively pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant.

Results: FH− had the expected linear increase in startle magnitude, with eye blink EMG gaining in strength (F= 18, p < 0.0002) from pleasant to neutral to unpleasant slides. In contrast, FH+ did not show EMG potentiation to the unpleasant slides and therefore lacked the same linear trend (F < 1, p > 0.4). Notably, FH groups rated the emotional valence and arousal of the photographs in similar ways. Self-reported negative affect partly accounted for the lack of startle potentiation in FH+, suggesting that startle modulation differences between the groups may be associated with underlying psychological characteristics.

Conclusions: These findings implicate altered limbic outputs to the startle pathway in FH+ despite normal conscious evaluation of emotional arousal and pleasantness of the slides. This method may provide a useful paradigm for testing processing of emotionally relevant stimuli in relation to risk for alcohol use disorders.

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