Fear-potentiated startle: a neural and pharmacological analysis

Behav Brain Res. 1993 Dec 20;58(1-2):175-98. doi: 10.1016/0166-4328(93)90102-v.


The fear-potentiated startle paradigm has proven to be a useful system with which to analyze neural systems involved in fear and anxiety. This test measures conditioned fear by an increase in the amplitude of a simple reflex (the acoustic startle reflex) in the presence of a cue previously paired with a shock. Fear-potentiated startle is sensitive to a variety of drugs such as diazepam, morphine, and buspirone that reduce anxiety in people and can be measured reliably in humans when the eyeblink component of startle is elicited at a time when they are anticipating a shock. Electrical stimulation techniques suggest that a visual conditioned stimulus ultimately alters acoustic startle at a specific point along the acoustic startle pathway. The lateral, basolateral and central amygdaloid nuclei and the caudal branch of the ventral amygdalofugal pathway projecting to the brainstem are necessary for potentiated startle to occur. The central nucleus of the amygdala projects directly to one of the brainstem nuclei critical for startle and electrical stimulation of this nucleus increases startle amplitude. Chemical or electrolytic lesions of either the central nucleus or the lateral and basolateral nuclei of the amygdala block the expression of fear-potentiated startle. The perirhinal cortex, which projects directly to the lateral and basolateral amygdaloid nuclei, plays a critical role in the expression of fear-potentiated startle using either visual or auditory conditioned stimuli. These latter amygdaloid nuclei may actually be the site of plasticity for fear conditioning, because local infusion of the NMDA antagonist AP5 into these nuclei blocks the acquisition of fear-potentiated startle. On the other hand, the expression of fear-potentiated startle is blocked by local infusion of the non-NMDA ionotropic antagonist CNQX or the G-protein inactivating toxin, pertussis toxin, but not by AP5. Finally, we have begun to investigate brain systems that might be involved in the inhibition of fear. Local infusion of AP5 into the amygdala was found to block the acquisition of experimental extinction, a prototypical method for reducing fear. We have also established a reliable procedure for producing both external and conditioned inhibition of fear-potentiated startle and hope to eventually understand the neural systems involved in these phenomena.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Fear* / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Reflex, Startle / drug effects
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology*