Auditory startle response in trauma survivors with posttraumatic stress disorder: A prospective study

Arieh Y. Shalev, Tuvia Peri, Dalia Brandes, Sara Freedman, Scott P. Orr, Roger K. Pitman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

211 Scopus citations


Objective: Previous studies have shown elevated autonomic responses to startling tones in trauma survivors with chronic posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The origin of these abnormal responses is obscure. The present study attempted to clarify this issue by prospectively evaluating responses to sudden, loud tones in individuals who arrived at a hospital emergency room after psychologically traumatic events. Method: By using a previously established protocol, autonomic and muscular responses to the tones were evaluated at 1 week, 1 month, and 4 months after the traumatic event. Structured diagnostic interviews performed at 4 months classified subjects into groups with (N=36) and without (N= 182) PTSD, which were further subdivided according to the presence or absence of major depressive disorder as follows: neither PTSD nor depression (N=166), depression alone (N=16), PTSD alone (N=21), and both PTSD and depression (N=15). Results: The groups showed comparable physiological responses to the tones at 1 week posttrauma. However, at 1 and 4 months posttrauma, the subjects with PTSD showed a greater heart rate response and required more stimulus trials to reach the criteria of skin conductance and orbicularis oculi electromyogram nonresponse. These findings were not significantly influenced by comorbid depression and were not explained by the severity of the traumatic event or by the intensity of the initial symptoms. Conclusions: Differences in physiological response to startling tones develop along with PTSD in the months that follow a traumatic event. This pattern supports the theories that associate PTSD with progressive neuronal sensitization.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)255-261
Number of pages7
JournalAmerican Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2000


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