Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 45, Issue 2, pp 397–410 | Cite as

Anxiety and Depression Symptom Dimensions Demonstrate Unique Relationships with the Startle Reflex in Anticipation of Unpredictable Threat in 8 to 14 Year-Old Girls

  • Brady D. Nelson
  • Greg Hajcak


There is growing evidence that heightened sensitivity to unpredictability is a core mechanism of anxiety disorders. In adults, multiple anxiety disorders have been associated with a heightened startle reflex in anticipation of unpredictable threat. Child and adolescent anxiety has been linked to an increased startle reflex across baseline, safety, and threat conditions. However, it is unclear whether anxiety in youth is related to the startle reflex as a function of threat predictability. In a sample of 90 8 to 14 year-old girls, the present study examined the association between anxiety symptom dimensions and startle potentiation during a no, predictable, and unpredictable threat task. Depression symptom dimensions were also examined given their high comorbidity with anxiety and mixed relationship with the startle reflex and sensitivity to unpredictability. To assess current symptoms, participants completed the self-report Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders and Children’s Depression Inventory. Results indicated that social phobia symptoms were associated with heightened startle potentiation in anticipation of unpredictable threat and attenuated startle potentiation in anticipation of predictable threat. Negative mood and negative self-esteem symptoms were associated with attenuated and heightened startle potentiation in anticipation of unpredictable threat, respectively. All results remained significant after controlling for the other symptom dimensions. The present study provides initial evidence that anxiety and depression symptom dimensions demonstrate unique associations with the startle reflex in anticipation of unpredictable threat in children and adolescents.


Adolescence Anxiety Childhood Depression Startle Unpredictability 


Compliance with Ethical Standards


This study was funded by National Institute of Mental Health grants R01MH097767 awarded to G.H. and K01MH107808 awarded to B.D.N. The authors have no conflicts of interest to report. We would like the thank Emily Hale-Rude, Elizabeth Parisi, and Kreshnik, Burani for their assistance on this project.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyStony Brook UniversityStony BrookUSA

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