, Volume 230, Issue 3, pp 477–485 | Cite as

Effects of smoking on the acoustic startle response and prepulse inhibition in smokers with and without posttraumatic stress disorder

  • Scott R. Vrana
  • Patrick S. Calhoun
  • F. Joseph McClernon
  • Michelle F. Dennis
  • Sherman T. Lee
  • Jean C. BeckhamEmail author
Original Investigation



Cigarette smokers smoke in part because nicotine helps regulate attention. Prepulse inhibition (PPI) of the startle reflex is a measure of early attentional gating that is reduced in abstinent smokers and in groups with attention regulation difficulties. Attention difficulties are found in people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


The aim of this study is to assess whether smoking and abstinence differentially affect the startle response and PPI in smokers with and without PTSD.


Startle response and PPI (prepulses at 60, 120, or 240 ms) were measured in smokers with (N = 39) and without (N = 61) PTSD, while smoking and again while abstinent.


Participants with PTSD produced both larger magnitude and faster latency startle responses than controls. Across groups, PPI was greater when smoking than when abstinent. The PTSD and control group exhibited different patterns of PPI across prepulse intervals when smoking and when abstinent. Older age was associated with reduced PPI, but only when abstinent from smoking.


The effects of PTSD on startle magnitude and of smoking on PPI replicate earlier studies. The different pattern of PPI exhibited in PTSD and control groups across prepulse intervals, while smoking and abstinent suggests that previous research on smoking and PPI has been limited by not including longer prepulse intervals, and that nicotine may affect the time course as well as increasing the level of PPI. The reduced PPI among older participants during abstinence suggests that nicotine may play a role in maintaining attention in older smokers, which may motivate continued smoking in older individuals.


Smoking Abstinence Prepulse inhibition Attention Acoustic startle reflex Posttraumatic stress disorder Aging 



This work was supported primarily by the National Institutes of Health grants 2R01CA081595, 2K24DA016388 and the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Research and Development, Clinical Science. We would like to thank the participants who volunteered to participate in this study. The authors also wish to thank Terry Blumenthal for consultation on scoring and interpreting the startle response and PPI results. The views expressed in this presentation are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Veterans Affairs or the National Institutes of Health.

Conflict of interest

The authors have no competing interests to report.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Scott R. Vrana
    • 1
  • Patrick S. Calhoun
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
    • 5
  • F. Joseph McClernon
    • 3
  • Michelle F. Dennis
    • 2
    • 3
  • Sherman T. Lee
    • 2
  • Jean C. Beckham
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
    Email author
  1. 1.Virginia Commonwealth UniversityRichmondUSA
  2. 2.Durham Veterans Affairs Medical CenterDurhamUSA
  3. 3.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesDuke University Medical CenterDurhamUSA
  4. 4.Veterans Affairs Mid-Atlantic Region Mental Illness ResearchEducation, and Clinical CenterDurhamUSA
  5. 5.Veterans Affairs Center for Health Services Research in Primary CareDurhamUSA

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