Chemosensory anxiety signals augment the startle reflex in humans

Neurosci Lett. 2006 Feb 13;394(2):127-30. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2005.10.012. Epub 2005 Oct 28.


The aim of the present study was to investigate whether chemosensory anxiety signals can activate behavioral withdrawal systems in humans. Twelve male university students donated their axillary sweat in two situations: right before an oral academic examination (anxiety condition) and during ergometric training (exercise condition). Subjective ratings revealed that the odor donors experienced significantly more anxiety and less pleasure during the anxiety condition than during the exercise condition. Seven subjects (three females) participated in the psychophysiological experiment. The chemosensory stimuli from pooled sweat samples of the donors, and from unused cotton pads (pad condition) were presented via a constant-flow olfactometer. Acoustic startle probes (100 dB (A)) were delivered during and between the presentations of the chemosensory stimuli. Only three subjects were able to discriminate the chemosensory stimuli of the human sweat samples from room air. However, the startle reflex amplitude (EMG of the eyeblink response) recorded in the context of chemosensory anxiety signals was increased, as compared to the amplitude recorded in the context of chemosensory stimuli from either exercise (p = 0.018) or cotton pad (p = 0.012). It is concluded that chemosensory anxiety signals may pre-attentively prime defensive behavior.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Odorants
  • Reflex, Startle / drug effects*
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology*
  • Stimulation, Chemical*
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Sweat / chemistry