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Drug Alcohol Depend. 2013 Sep 1;132(1-2):216-22. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2013.02.003. Epub 2013 Mar 7.

Startle response to unpredictable threat in comorbid panic disorder and alcohol dependence.

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  • 1University of Illinois - Chicago, Department of Psychology (M/C 285), 1007 West Harrison Street, Chicago, IL 60657, United States.



Although the adverse consequences of comorbid panic disorder (PD) and alcohol dependence (AD) are well-established, relatively little is known about the mechanisms underlying their co-occurrence. Several researchers have postulated that alcohol's ability to dampen response to unpredictable threat may be an important motivational factor in comorbid PD and AD. To date, no research has examined these processes using a clinical sample and it is unclear whether individuals with PD and AD evidence different reactivity to unpredictable threat relative to individuals with PD-only.


The aim of the current study was to examine differences in aversive responding during predictable and unpredictable threat-of-shock in three groups of individuals with: (1) current PD and remitted AD (PD and AD), (2) current PD but no lifetime diagnosis of AD (PD-only), and (3) no lifetime diagnoses of PD or AD (controls). Aversive responding was assessed using a well-established electromyography (EMG) startle paradigm.


Results indicated that PD and AD individuals evidenced greater startle potentiation during unpredictable (but not predictable) threat relative to controls and PD-only individuals (who did not differ).


These findings suggest that heightened reactivity to unpredictable threat may be an important process in PD and AD comorbidity and a possible key motivational factor underlying engagement in alcohol use.

Copyright © 2013 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.


Alcohol dependence; Anxiety; Comorbidity; Panic disorder; Startle response; Unpredictable threat

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