Event-related potentials to acoustic startle probes during the anticipation of predictable and unpredictable threat

Brady D. Nelson*, Greg Hajcak, Stewart A Shankman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


The startle reflex is a robust measure of defense system activation. Startle probes also elicit ERP P300 and N100 responses that capture attentional engagement. The startle probe-elicited P300 and N100 have been primarily examined during affective picture viewing paradigms, and no study has examined these measures in the context of a threat anticipation task or in relation to threat predictability. In the present study, 131 participants completed a no (N), predictable (P), and unpredictable (U) threat-of-shock task, and the startle eye blink reflex, P300, and N100 responses to the startle probe were measured. We also examined several psychometric properties of these psychophysiological measures. Results indicated probe P300 attenuation during the P and U relative to N condition. In contrast, probe N100 enhancement was present only for the U condition. The P300 and N100 decreased (i.e., habituated) at comparable rates across the different threat conditions. The startle reflex also decreased, but only startle during the U (and not P) condition continued to differ from the N condition by the end of the task. Internal consistency of the ERP measures was acceptable and comparable to the startle reflex. Finally, the startle reflex was correlated with the probe N100, but not P300, across threat conditions. This study is one of the first to use startle probe ERPs to demonstrate that a context of potential threat also elicits attentional engagement. Furthermore, this study provides novel evidence that the probe N100 may provide a measure that is uniquely sensitive to unpredictable threat.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)887-894
Number of pages8
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2015


  • Event-related potential
  • N100
  • P300
  • Predictability
  • Startle reflex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Biological Psychiatry


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