Anxiety and initial value dependence in startle habituation

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Studies suggest that deficits in startle reflex habituation occur in trait and clinical anxiety. Measures of habituation are affected by the magnitude of the initial response, with larger initial responses predicting a steeper decline in response over repeated trials. This relationship between initial value and change, commonly called the Law of Initial Value or initial value dependence (IVD), has been partialled out as a covariate in habituation research, but variation in IVD may be informative in itself, reflecting differences in physiological reactivity. The present study explored how trait anxiety and contextual anxiety relate to habituation kinetics of the startle eyeblink response: initial value, linear habituation slope, and the relationship between them (IVD). Participants (n = 31; 15 Control, 16 Contextual Anxiety [CA]) were exposed to two blocks of acoustic startle stimuli, and CA participants were warned that they may receive an electrical shock to the wrist during block 2. Trait anxiety did not predict habituation slope, but it did predict a weaker IVD relationship, meaning that high initial startle magnitude was less predictive of a steep response decline in trait-anxious subjects. Meanwhile, CA did not impact startle habituation or IVD. The results suggest that individual differences in trait anxiety are related to the relationship between initial physiological response magnitude and subsequent change in response. IVD in startle habituation may thus serve as a better biomarker of healthy emotional responding than startle habituation per se.



anxiety, habituation, initial value dependence, reactivity, startle