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Psychophysiology. 2011 Dec;48(12):1745-52. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2011.01268.x. Epub 2011 Aug 8.

In the face of fear: anxiety sensitizes defensive responses to fearful faces.

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  • 1Section on the Neurobiology of Fear and Anxiety, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA.


Fearful faces readily activate the amygdala. Yet, whether fearful faces evoke fear is unclear. Startle studies show no potentiation of startle by fearful faces, suggesting that such stimuli do not activate defense mechanisms. However, the response to biologically relevant stimuli may be sensitized by anxiety. The present study tested the hypothesis that startle would not be potentiated by fearful faces in a safe context, but that startle would be larger during fearful faces compared to neutral faces in a threat-of-shock context. Subjects viewed fearful and neutral faces in alternating periods of safety and threat of shock. Acoustic startle stimuli were presented in the presence and absence of the faces. Startle was transiently potentiated by fearful faces compared to neutral faces in the threat periods. This suggests that although fearful faces do not prompt behavioral mobilization in an innocuous context, they can do so in an anxiogenic one.

Copyright © 2011 Society for Psychophysiological Research.

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