Comparison of the effects of diazepam on the fear-potentiated startle reflex and the fear-inhibited light reflex in man

J Psychopharmacol. 1999;13(3):226-34. doi: 10.1177/026988119901300303.


It has been shown previously that the amplitude of the acoustic startle reflex is enhanced, and the amplitude of the light reflex reduced, when subjects anticipate an aversive event, compared to periods when subjects are resting ('fear-potentiated startle reflex' and 'fear-inhibited light reflex'). We examined whether the anxiolytic diazepam would reverse the effects of threat on the startle and pupillary reflexes. Twelve male volunteers participated in three weekly sessions in which they received oral treatment with placebo, diazepam 5 mg and diazepam 10 mg, according to a balanced crossover double-blind design. One hour after ingestion of the treatments, miotic responses to light pulses and electromyographic responses of the orbicularis oculi muscle to sound pulses were elicited during alternating periods in which the threat of an electric shock (electrodes attached to the subject's wrist) was present (THREAT) and absent (SAFE). The THREAT condition was associated with a significant increase in the amplitude of the electromyographic (EMG) response, a significant reduction of the miotic response amplitude, and an increase in self-rated anxiety. Diazepam attenuated all these effects of THREAT. Diazepam did not affect the amplitude of the miotic response under the SAFE condition, but did suppress the EMG response under this condition. These results confirm the validity of the fear-potentiated startle reflex and fear-inhibited light reflex as laboratory models of human anxiety, and reveal some differences between the effects of diazepam on the two reflexes.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anti-Anxiety Agents / administration & dosage
  • Anti-Anxiety Agents / pharmacology*
  • Attention / drug effects
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Diazepam / administration & dosage
  • Diazepam / pharmacology*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Electroshock
  • Fear / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reflex, Pupillary / drug effects
  • Reflex, Startle / drug effects*


  • Anti-Anxiety Agents
  • Diazepam