Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 152, Issue 4, pp 510–518 | Cite as

Startle response is dishabituated during a reaction time task

  • Anthony N. Carlsen
  • Romeo Chua
  • J. Timothy Inglis
  • David J. Sanderson
  • Ian M. Franks
Research Article


Recent experiments pairing a startling stimulus with a simple reaction time (RT) task have shown that when participants are startled, a prepared movement may be triggered earlier in comparison to voluntary initiation (Carlsen et al. 2003, in press; Siegmund et al. 2001; Valls-Solé et al. 1999). The use of this paradigm in experiments may provide new insights into processes that control rapid voluntary actions. However, because the startle response habituates with repeated exposure to the startling stimulus, its use in experiments may be limited. Previously Brown et al. (1991) and later Siegmund et al. (2001) noted that individuals habituate to a startling stimulus at different rates depending on the required activity level of the participant in the task. The present experiment was designed to determine the rate at which participants habituate to a startle during the completion of a RT task. Participants completed 100 trials in which an active wrist extension to a target was performed as fast as possible following an auditory tone. An unexpected 124 dB auditory startle stimulus accompanied the imperative stimulus in 20 of these trials. For the duration of the experiment, startle response electromyographic (EMG) activity continued to be produced in the sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM) indicating that habituation was not complete after 20 startle trials. Furthermore RT in the startle condition was significantly shorter than control RT. However, findings indicate that when a measurable EMG burst in the SCM was present, RT was significantly shorter than when no SCM burst was present.


Startle Electromyography Programming Habituation 


  1. Abel K, Waikar M, Pedro B, Hemsley D, Geyer M (1998) Repeated testing of prepulse inhibition and habituation of the startle reflex: a study in healthy human controls. J Psychopharmacol 12:330–337Google Scholar
  2. Acocella CM, Blumenthal TD (1990) Directed attention influences the modification of startle reflex probability. Psychol Rep 66:275–285PubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Blumenthal TD (1996) Inhibition of the human startle response is affected by both prepulse intensity and eliciting stimulus intensity. Biol Psychol 44:85–104PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Brown P, Rothwell JC, Thompson PD, Britton TC, Day BL, Marsden CD (1991) New observations on the normal auditory startle reflex in man. Brain 114:1891–1902PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Brunia CH (1993) Waiting in readiness: gaiting in attention and motor preparation. Psychophysiology 30:327–339PubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Carlsen AN, Nagelkerke P, Garry M, Hodges N, Franks IM (2000) Using the startle paradigm to investigate the nature of a prepared response. J Sport Exerc Psychol 22S:S24Google Scholar
  7. Carlsen AN, Hunt MA, Inglis JT, Sanderson DJ, Chua R (2003) Altered triggering of a prepared movement by a startling stimulus. J Neurophysiol 89:1857–1863PubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Carlsen AN, Chua R, Inglis JT, Sanderson DJ, Franks IM (in press) Prepared movements are elicited early by startle. J Motor BehavGoogle Scholar
  9. Davis M (1984) The mammalian startle response. In: RC Eaton (ed) Neural mechanisms of startle behavior. Plenum, New York, pp 287–351Google Scholar
  10. Davis M, Henninger GR (1972) Comparison of response plasticity between the eyeblink and vertex potential in humans. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol 33:283–293CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Feldman AG (1986) Once more on the equilibrium-point hypothesis (λ model) for motor control. J Mot Behav 18:17–54Google Scholar
  12. Fendt M, Li L, Yeomans JS (2001) Brain stem circuits mediating prepulse inhibition of the startle reflex. Psychopharmacology 156:216–224Google Scholar
  13. Fox JE (1978) Excitatory and inhibitory components of the eye-blink response to startle evoking stimuli, studied in the human subject. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol 44:490–501CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Geyer MA, Braff DL (1982) Habituation of the blink reflex in normals and schizophrenic patients. Psychophysiology 19:1–6Google Scholar
  15. Graham FK (1975) The more or less startling effects of weak prestimulation. Psychophysiology 12:238–248PubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Hoffman HS (1984) Methodological factors in the behavioral analysis of startle: the use of reflex modification procedures in the assessment of threshold. In: Eaton RC (ed) Neural mechanisms of startle behavior. Plenum, New York, pp 267–286Google Scholar
  17. Jordan WP, Strasser HC, McHale L (2000) Contextual control of long-term habituation in rats. J Exp Psychol Anim Behav Proc 26:323–339CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kandel ER (1991) Cellular mechanisms of learning and the biological basis of individuality. In: Kandel ER, Schwartz JH, Jessel TM (eds) Principles of neural science, 3rd edn. Elsevier, New York, pp 816–834Google Scholar
  19. Keele SW (1968) Movement control in skilled motor performance. Psychol Bull 70:387–403Google Scholar
  20. Kohfeld DL (1969) Effects of the intensity of auditory and visual ready signals on simple reaction time. J Exp Psychol 82:88–95PubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Kupfermann I (1991) Learning. In: Kandel ER, Schwartz JH, Jessel TM (eds) Principles of neural science, 3rd edn. Elsevier, New York, pp 805–815Google Scholar
  22. Latash ML, Gottlieb GL (1991) An equilibrium-point model for fast single-joint movement: I. emergence of strategy-dependent EMG patterns. J Mot Behav 23:163–177Google Scholar
  23. Leaton RN, Cassella JV, Borszcz GS (1985) Short-term and long-term habituation of the acoustic startles response in chronic decerebrate rats. Behav Neurosci 99:901–912PubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Lehmann J, Pryce CR, Feldon J (1999) Sex differences in the acoustic startle response and prepulse inhibition in Wistar rats. Behav Brain Res 104:113–117PubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Liégeois-Chauvel C, Morin C, Musolino A, Bancaud J, Chauvel P (1989) Evidence for a contribution of the auditory cortex to audiospinal facilitation in man. Brain 112:375–391PubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Lipp OV, Siddle DAT, Dall PJ (2000) The effect of warning stimulus modality on blink startle modification in reaction time tasks. Psychophysiology 37:55–64CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. MacKinnon CD, Rothwell JC (2000) Time-varying changes in corticospinal excitability accompanying the triphasic EMG pattern in humans. J Physiol 528.3:633–645Google Scholar
  28. Ornitz EM, Russell AT, Yuan H, Liu M (1996) Autonomic, electroencephalographic and myogenic activity accompanying startle and its habituation during mid-childhood. Psychophysiology 33:507–513PubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Richards JE (1998) Development of selective attention in young infants: enhancement and attenuation of the startle reflex by attention. Dev Sci 1:45–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Richards JE (2000) Development of multimodal attention in young infants: modification of the startle reflex by attention. Psychophysiology 37:65–75CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Rimpel J, Geyer D, Hopf HC (1982) Changes in the blink responses to combined trigeminal, acoustic, and visual repetitive stimulation, studied in the human subject. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol 54:552–560CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Rothwell JC, MacKinnon CD, Valls-Solé J (2002) Role of brainstem-spinal projections in voluntary movement. Mov Disord 17:S27–S29CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Schicatano EJ, Blumenthal TD (1998) The effects of caffeine and directed attention on acoustic startle habituation. Pharmacol Biochem Behav 59:145–150CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Scott BW, Frankland PW, Li L, Yeomans JS (1999) Cochlear and trigeminal systems contributing to the startle reflex in rats. Neuroscience 91:1565–1574CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Shankweiler DP (1959) Effects of success and failure instructions on reaction time in patients with brain damage. J Comp Physiol Psychol 52:546–549Google Scholar
  36. Siegmund GP, Inglis JT, Sanderson DJ (2001) Startle response of human neck muscles sculpted by readiness to perform ballistic head movements. J Physiol 535:289–300PubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Timmann D, Musso C, Kolb FP, Rijntjes M, Jüptner M, Müller SP, Diener HC, Weiller C (1998) Involvement of the human cerebellum during habituation of the acoustic startle response: a PET study. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 65:771–773PubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Valls-Solé J, Solé A, Valldeoriola F, Muñoz E, Gonzalez LE, Tolosa ES (1995) Reaction time and acoustic startle in normal human subjects. Neurosci Lett 195:97–100CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Valls-Solé J, Valldeoriola F, Tolosa E, Nobbe F (1997) Habituation of the auditory startle reaction is reduced during preparation for execution of a motor task in normal human subjects. Brain Res 751:155–159CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Valls-Solé J, Rothwell JC, Goulart F, Cossu G, Muñoz E (1999) Patterned ballistic movements triggered by a startle in healthy humans. J Physiol 516.3:931–938Google Scholar
  41. Wadman WJ, Denier van der Gon JJ, Geuze RH, Mol CR (1979) Control of fast goal-directed arm movements. J Hum Mov Stud 5:3–17Google Scholar
  42. Wickelgren BG (1967) Habituation of spinal interneurons. J Neurophysiol 30:1424–1438PubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Woodworth RS (1938) Experimental psychology. Henry Holt, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  44. Yeomans JS, Frankland PW (1996) The acoustic startle reflex: neurons and connections. Brain Res Rev 21:301–314CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Zhang J, Engel JA, Ericson M, Svensson L (1999) Involvement of the medial genticulate body in prepulse inhibition of acoustic startle. Psychopharmacology 141:189–196Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anthony N. Carlsen
    • 1
  • Romeo Chua
    • 1
  • J. Timothy Inglis
    • 1
  • David J. Sanderson
    • 1
  • Ian M. Franks
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Human KineticsUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  2. 2.School of Human KineticsUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

Personalised recommendations