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A potentiated startle study of uncertainty and contextual anxiety in adolescents diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Jacqueline Rodgers, Professor Mark FreestonORCiD, Professor Mikle South


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Background: Beyond the core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), associated symptoms of anxiety can cause substantial impairment for individuals affected by ASD and those who care for them.Methods: We utilized a potentiated startle paradigm with a puff of air to the neck as the unconditioned stimulus in order to investigate differences between response to cued fear and contextual anxiety among cognitively able adolescents diagnosed with ASD and an age-and IQ-matched typically developing group.Results: In a threat-modulated startle paradigm, response patterns to neutral, predictable, and unpredictable conditions were comparable across typically developing and ASD youth in terms of startle response magnitude and latency. However, the ASD group showed significantly greater absolute startle responsivity at baseline and throughout the experiment, suggesting possibly enhanced general sensitivity to threatening contexts. The ASD group, but not the control group, demonstrated moderate to strong negative correlations between psychophysiological response to unpredictable threats (uncertainty) and questionnaire measures of generalized anxiety, intolerance of uncertainty, and repetitive behavior.Conclusions: Our data suggest enhanced general reactivity among the ASD group, possibly reflecting greater sensitivity to the threatening context of the startle paradigm. Associations with the response to uncertainty may help explain shared neurobehavioral mechanisms in ASD and anxiety. This task can provide useful targets for future neuroimaging and genetics studies as well as specific avenues for intervention. We emphasize the importance of further basic and clinical research into links among these important constructs.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Rodgers J; Freeston MH; South M; Chamberlain PD; Crowley MJ; White SE

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Molecular Autism

Year: 2013

Volume: 4

Pages: 1-11

Print publication date: 01/01/2013

ISSN (electronic): 2040-2392

Publisher: BioMed Central Ltd.


DOI: 10.1186/2040-2392-4-31


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