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Am J Psychiatry. 1997 Aug;154(8):1076-80.

Startle reflex abnormalities in women with sexual assault-related posttraumatic stress disorder.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn, USA.



This investigation was designed to assess the acoustic startle response in treatment-seeking women with sexual assault-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Thirteen patients with sexual assault-related PTSD and 16 healthy female comparison subjects were recruited for participation in the study. Each patient met the full criteria for PTSD according to the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-III-R. All subjects in the study were right-handed. The acoustic stimuli were bursts of white noise (92 dB and 102 dB) with a nearly instantaneous onset delivered binaurally through headphones.


The magnitude of the startle response (eye blink) to the first stimulus was asymmetrically distributed in the PTSD patients but not in the comparison subjects: it was greater for the left eye than the right eye in the PTSD patients only. There was a differential asymmetry of startle response in the two subgroups of patients (recent PTSD and long-standing PTSD): the startle reflex was larger for the left eye than the right in the subgroup with recent PTSD but not in the group with long-standing PTSD.


This study provides the first objective evidence of startle abnormalities in women with PTSD. The significantly greater startle responses for the left eye compared with the right in the PTSD subjects suggest a laterality effect. As suggested by the preclinical model of shock sensitization, it is possible that in a subgroup of individuals with PTSD, trauma may sensitize the startle reflex. This model may hold true in humans and is supported by the findings of greater startle response in the patients with recent-onset PTSD.

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