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Heightened reactivity to unpredictable threat (U-threat) is a core individual difference factor underlying fear-based psychopathology. Little is known, however, about whether reactivity to U-threat is a stable marker of fear-based psychopathology or if it is malleable to treatment. The aim of the current study was to address this question by examining differences in reactivity to U-threat within patients before and after 12-weeks of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Participants included patients with principal fear (n = 22) and distress/misery disorders (n = 29), and a group of healthy controls (n = 21) assessed 12-weeks apart. A well-validated threat-of-shock task was used to probe reactivity to predictable (P-) and U-threat and startle eyeblink magnitude was recorded as an index of defensive responding.
Across both assessments, individuals with fear-based disorders displayed greater startle magnitude to U-threat relative to healthy controls and distress/misery patients (who did not differ). From pre- to post-treatment, startle magnitude during U-threat decreased only within the fear patients who received CBT. Moreover, within fear patients, the magnitude of decline in startle to U-threat correlated with the magnitude of decline in fear symptoms. For the healthy controls, startle to U-threat across the two time points was highly reliable and stable.
Together, these results indicate that startle to U-threat characterizes fear disorder patients and is malleable to treatment with CBT but not SSRIs within fear patients. Startle to U-threat may therefore reflect an objective, psychophysiological indicator of fear disorder status and CBT treatment response.
When sober, problematic drinkers display exaggerated reactivity to threats that are uncertain (U-threat). Since this aversive affective state can be alleviated via acute alcohol intoxication, it has been posited that individuals who exhibit heightened reactivity to U-threat at baseline are motivated to use alcohol as a means of avoidance-based coping, setting the stage for excessive drinking. To date, however, no study has attempted to characterize the dispositional nature of exaggerated reactivity to U-threat and test whether it is a vulnerability factor or exclusively a disease marker of problematic alcohol use.
The current investigation utilized a family study design to address these gaps by examining whether (1) reactivity to U-threat is associated with risk for problematic alcohol use, defined by family history of alcohol use disorder (AUD) and (2) reactivity to U-threat is correlated amongst adult biological siblings. A total of 157 families, and 458 individuals, participated in the study and two biological siblings completed a threat-of-shock task designed to probe reactivity to U-threat and predictable threat (P-threat). Startle potentiation was collected as an index of aversive responding.
Within biological siblings, startle potentiation to U-threat [intraclass correlation (ICC) = 0.35] and P-threat (ICC = 0.63) was significantly correlated. In addition, independent of an individuals’ own AUD status, startle potentiation to U-threat, but not P-threat, was positively associated with risk for AUD (i.e. AUD family history).
This suggests that heightened reactivity to U-threat may be a familial vulnerability factor for problematic drinking and a novel prevention target for AUD.
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