, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 315–322 | Cite as

Bidirectional influences of vibrotactile stimuli on modification of the human acoustic startle reflex

  • Terry D. Blumenthal
  • Eugene A. Tolomeo


The present study deals with the effects of a vibrotactile prepulse on the acoustic startle reflex. An 85-dB(A) broadband noise was used to elicit the startle reflex, and the amplitude, latency, and probability of integrated electromyographic activity of the muscle beneath the eye were measured. Experiment 1 involved the presentation of vibrotactile prepulses at 20-dB SL to the hand, at lead times (stimulus onset asynchronies) of 0 to 400 msec before the acoustic startle stimulus. When compared to control (no prepulse) responding, a vibrotactile prepulse with a lead time of 25 msec caused a significant increase in response amplitude, while prepulses at lead times of 150 to 400 msec inhibited response amplitude. Response latency was significantly reduced (there was facilitation) in comparison with results for the control condition, at lead times of 25, 50, 75, 100, 200, and 350 msec. Experiment 2 involved presenting subjects with two prepulses (at lead times of 25 and 200 msec) on the same trial or on separate trials. A prepulse at a lead time of 25 msec caused an increase in response amplitude, but had no effect on response latency or probability. A prepulse at a lead time of 200 msec caused a decrease in response probability, but had no effect on response amplitude or latency. Response amplitude and probability were larger when both prepulses were presented on the same trial than they were when the 200-msec lead time prepulse was presented alone. These data support the hypothesis that the mechanisms for inhibition and facilitation of the human startle reflex are partially independent, and that crossmodal modification of the startle response may involve different mechanisms than those responsible for modification within a single sensory system.


  1. Anthony, B. J. (1985). In the blink of an eye: Implications of reflex modification for information processing. In P. K. Ackles, J. R. Jennings, & M. G. H. Coles (Eds.), Advances in psychophysiology: Vol. I (pp. 167–218). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.Google Scholar
  2. Anthony, B. J., & Graham, F. K. (1983). Evidence for sensory-selective set in young infants. Science, 220, 742–744.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Anthony, B. J., & Graham, F. K. (1985). Blink reflex modification by selective attention: Evidence for the modulation of “automatic” processing. Biological Psychology, 20, 43–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Békésy, G. von (1974). A new audiometer. Acta Otolaryngologica, 35, 411–422.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blumenthal, T. D. (1988). The startle response to acoustic stimuli near startle threshold: Effects of stimulus rise and fall time, duration, and intensity. Psychophysiology, 25, 607–611.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Blumenthal, T. D., & Berg, W. K. (1986a). The startle response as an indicator of temporal summation. Perception & Psychophysics, 40, 62–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Blumenthal, T. D., & Berg, W. K. (1986b). Stimulus rise time, intensity, and bandwidth effects on acoustic startle amplitude and probability. Psychophysiology, 23, 635–641.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Blumenthal, T. D., & Gescheider, G. A. (1987). Modification of the acoustic startle reflex by a tactile prepulse: The effects of stimulus onset asynchrony and prepulse intensity. Psychophysiology, 24, 320–327.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Blumenthal, T. D., & Verma, A. (1988, April). The effects of low levels of caffeine on the human startle reflex. Paper presented at the Southeastern Psychological Association Convention, New Orleans.Google Scholar
  10. Davis, M. J., & Ahroon, W. A. (1982). Fluctuations in susceptibility to noise-induced temporary threshold shift as influenced by the menstrual cycle. Journal of Auditory Research, 22, 173–187.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Desmedt, J. E., & Cheron, G. (1982). Somato-sensory evoked potentials in man: Subcortical and cortical components and their neural basis. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 388, 388–400.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Gallager, D. W., Kehne, J. H., Wakeman, E. A., & Davis, M. (1983). Developmental changes in pharmacological responsivity of the acoustic startle reflex: Effects of picrotoxin. Psychophysiology, 79, 87–93.Google Scholar
  13. Gersuni, G. V. (1971). Temporal organization of the auditory function. In G. V. Gersuni (Ed.), Sensory processes at the neuronal and behavioral levels (pp. 85–114). New York: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gescheider, G. A., Kane, M. J., Sager, L. C., & Ruffolo, L. J. (1974). The effect of auditory stimulation on responses to tactile stimuli. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 3, 204–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gescheider, G. A., Verrillo, R. T., McCann, J. T., & Aldrich, E. M. (1984). Effects of the menstrual cycle on vibrotactile sensitivity. Perception & Psychophysics, 36, 586–592.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Graham, F. K. (1975). The more or less startling effects of weak pre-stimulation. Psychophysiology, 12, 238–248.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Graham, F. K. (1980). Control of reflex blink excitability. In R. F. Thompson, L. H. Hicks, & V. B. Shvyrkov (Eds.), Neural mechanisms of goal-directed behavior and learning (pp. 511–519). New York: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Graham, F. K., & Murray, G. M. (1977). Discordant effects of weak prestimulation on magnitude and latency of the reflex blink. Physiological Psychology, 5, 108–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hackley, S. A., & Graham, F. K. (1983). Early selective attention effects on cutaneous and acoustic blink reflexes. Physiological Psychology, 11, 235–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hoffman, H. S., Cohen, M. E., & English, L. M. (1985). Reflex modification by acoustic signals in newborn infants and in adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 39, 562–579.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hoffman, H. S., Cohen, M. E., & Stitt, C. L. (1981). Acoustic augmentation and inhibition of the human eyeblink. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 7, 1357–1362.Google Scholar
  22. Hoffman, H. S., & Ison, J. R. (1980). Reflex modification in the domain of startle: 1. Some empirical findings and their implication for how the nervous system processes sensory input. Psychological Review, 87, 175–189.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Ison, J. R., Foss, J. A., Falcone, P., Sakovttz, L., Adelson, A. A., & Burton, R. I. (1986). Reflex modification: A method for assessing cutaneous dysfunction. Perception & Psychophysics, 40, 164–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Ison, J. R., & Hammond, G. R. (1971). Modification of the startle reflex in the rat by changes in the auditory and visual environment. Journal of Comparative & Physiological Psychology, 75, 435–452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Leitner, D. S., Powers, A. S., & Hoffman, H. S. (1979). The neural system for the inhibition of startle. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 14, 410–412.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Marsh, R., Hoffman, H. S., & Stitt, C. L. (1978). Reflex inhibition audiometry: A new objective procedure. Acta Otolaryngologica, 85, 336–341.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ornitz, E. M., Guthrie, D., Kaplan, A. R., Lane, S. J., & Norman, R. J. (1986). Maturation of startle modulation. Psychophysiology, 23, 624–634.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Reiter, L. A., & Ison, J. R. (1977). Inhibition of the human eyeblink reflex: An evaluation of the sensitivity of the Wendt-Yerkes method for threshold detection. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 3, 325–336.Google Scholar
  29. Stitt, C. L., Hoffman, H. S., & Marsh, R. R. (1976). Interaction versus independence of the startle-modification processes in the rat. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 2, 260–265.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Stitt, C. L., Hoffman, H. S., Marsh, R. R., & Schwartz, G. M. (1976). Modification of the pigeon’s visual startle reaction by the sensory environment. Journal of Comparative & Physiological Psychology, 90, 601–619.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Terry D. Blumenthal
    • 1
  • Eugene A. Tolomeo
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyWake Forest UniversityWinston-SalemUSA
  2. 2.Hamilton CollegeClintonUSA

Personalised recommendations