Startle reflex modulation during threat of shock and "threat" of reward.Psychophysiology. 2018 02; 55(2)P
During threat of shock, the startle reflex is potentiated, suggesting modulation by defensive mobilization. To determine whether startle potentiation is specific to aversive anticipation, startle reflexes were measured in the context of either aversive or appetitive anticipation in a between-subject study. Participants wore a device on the wrist that could deliver electrical shock (n = 49), or vibrotactile stimulation indicating monetary reward (n = 48). Cues signaling "threat" or "safe" periods were presented alone, or accompanied by presentation of affective and neutral pictures on half of the trials. Results indicated that the startle reflex was significantly potentiated when anticipating either shock or reward, compared to safe periods, both when no picture was presented, as well as during picture viewing. The difference between threat and safety in both reflex magnitude and skin conductance changes was larger for those anticipating shock, suggesting that the aversive context was more motivationally engaging. The pattern of reflex modulation as a function of picture valence varied under threat and safety, but was identical in the shock and reward groups, consistent with a hypothesis that anticipation of either aversive or appetitive events prompts heightened perceptual vigilance, potentiating the acoustic startle reflex.