Background Identifying early markers of risk for anxiety disorders in children may aid in understanding underlying mechanisms and informing prevention efforts. Affective modulation of the startle response indexes sensitivity to pleasant and unpleasant environmental contexts and has been shown to relate to anxiety, yet the extent to which abnormalities in affect-modulated startle reflect vulnerability for anxiety disorders in children has yet to be examined. The current study assessed the effects of parental psychopathology on affective modulation of startle in offspring. Method Nine-year-old children (n = 144) with no history of anxiety or depressive disorders completed a passive picture viewing task in which eye-blink startle responses were measured during the presentation of pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant images. Results Maternal anxiety was associated with distinct patterns of affective modulation of startle in offspring, such that children with maternal histories of anxiety showed potentiation of the startle response while viewing unpleasant images, but not attenuation during pleasant images, whereas children with no maternal history of anxiety exhibited attenuation of the startle response during pleasant images, but did not exhibit unpleasant potentiation - even when controlling for child symptoms of anxiety and depression. No effects of maternal depression or paternal psychopathology were observed. Conclusions These findings suggest that both enhanced startle responses in unpleasant conditions and failure to inhibit startle responses in pleasant conditions may reflect early emerging vulnerabilities that contribute to the later development of anxiety disorders.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Applied Psychology
- Psychiatry and Mental health