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J Abnorm Psychol. 2013 Aug;122(3):662-71. doi: 10.1037/a0033982.

Biomarkers of threat and reward sensitivity demonstrate unique associations with risk for psychopathology.

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Department of Psychology.


Two emotional/motivational constructs that have been posited to underlie anxiety and depressive disorders are heightened sensitivity to threat and reduced sensitivity to reward, respectively. It is unclear, though, whether these constructs are only epiphenomena or also connote risk for these disorders (and relatedly, whether they connote risk for separate disorders). Using family history of psychopathology as an indicator of risk, the present study examined whether biomarkers of sensitivity to threat (startle potentiation) and reward (frontal EEG asymmetry) were associated with similar or different familial liabilities. In addition, the present study examined whether these biomarkers were associated with risk independent of proband DSM-IV diagnosis. One-hundred and seventy-three individuals diagnosed with panic disorder (PD), early onset major depressive disorder (MDD), both (comorbids), or controls completed two laboratory paradigms assessing sensitivity to predictable/unpredictable threat (measured via startle response) and reward (measured via frontal EEG asymmetry during a gambling task). Results indicated that across all participants: (a) startle potentiation to unpredictable threat was associated with family history of PD (but not MDD); and (b) frontal EEG asymmetry while anticipating reward was associated with family history of MDD (but not PD). Additionally, both measures continued to be associated with family history of psychopathology after controlling for proband DSM-IV diagnosis. Results suggest that the proposed biomarkers of sensitivity to unpredictable threat and reward exhibit discriminant validity and may add to the predictive validity of the DSM-IV defined constructs of PD and MDD, respectively.

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