Alcohol selectively reduces anxiety but not fear: startle response during unpredictable versus predictable threat

J Abnorm Psychol. 2009 May;118(2):335-47. doi: 10.1037/a0015636.


Recent theory and empirical research have suggested that fear and anxiety are distinct processes with separable neurobiological substrates. Furthermore, a laboratory procedure has been developed to manipulate fear versus anxiety independently via administration of predictable or unpredictable electric shock, respectively. Benzodiazepines appear to selectively reduce anxiety but not fear in this procedure. The primary aim of this experiment was to determine if alcohol produced a similar selective reduction in anxiety. Intoxicated (target blood alcohol concentration of .08%) and nonintoxicated participants viewed a series of colored squares separated by variable intertrial intervals (ITIs) in 3 conditions. In the predictable shock condition, shocks were administered contingently during every square. In the unpredictable shock condition, shocks were administered noncontingently during both squares and ITIs. In the no-shock condition, no shocks were administered at any time. Alcohol significantly reduced startle potentiation during cues signaling unpredictable but not predictable shock, consistent with the thesis that alcohol selectively reduces anxiety but not fear. In addition, alcohol's effect on startle potentiation during unpredictable shock was mediated by vigilance. This anxiolytic effect may clarify the nature of alcohol's reinforcing effects in social and problem drinkers.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / prevention & control*
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / administration & dosage
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / blood
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / pharmacology*
  • Conditioning, Classical / drug effects*
  • Cues
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Electric Stimulation / methods
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage
  • Ethanol / blood
  • Ethanol / pharmacology*
  • Fear / drug effects*
  • Fear / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / drug effects
  • Reaction Time / drug effects
  • Reflex, Startle / drug effects*
  • Young Adult


  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Ethanol