BACKGROUND: The startle eye-blink is the cross-species translational tool to study defensive behavior in affective neuroscience with relevance to a broad range of neuropsychiatric conditions. It makes use of the startle reflex, a defensive response elicited by an immediate, unexpected sensory event, which is potentiated when evoked during threat and inhibited during safety. In contrast to skin conductance responses or pupil dilation, modulation of the startle reflex is valence specific. Rodent models implicate a modulatory pathway centering on the brainstem (i.e., nucleus reticularis pontis caudalis) and the centromedial amygdala as key hubs for flexibly integrating valence information into differential startle magnitude. Technical advances now allow for the investigation of this pathway using combined facial electromyography and functional magnetic resonance imaging in humans.
METHODS: We employed a multimethodological approach combining trial-by-trial facial eye-blink startle electromyography and brainstem- and amygdala-specific functional magnetic resonance imaging in humans. Validating the robustness and reproducibility of our findings, we provide evidence from two different paradigms (fear-potentiated startle, affect-modulated startle) in two independent studies (N = 43 and N = 55).
RESULTS: We provide key evidence for a conserved neural pathway for acoustic startle modulation between humans and rodents. Furthermore, we provide the crucial direct link between electromyography startle eye-blink magnitude and neural response strength. Finally, we demonstrate a dissociation between arousal-specific amygdala responding and triggered valence-specific amygdala responding.
CONCLUSIONS: We provide neurobiologically based evidence for the strong translational value of startle responding and argue that startle-evoked amygdala responding and its affective modulation may hold promise as an important novel tool for affective neuroscience and its clinical translation.