The Impact of Pubertal Development on Anxiety Risk and Startle Habituation

Aditi Kaveti ‘23

Figure 1: Pubertal development is related to risk for anxiety in teens.

As children begin pubertal development, they experience a host of changes that may contribute to feelings of anxiety, including increases in weight and height, changes in body shape, and hormonal fluctuations.

In a study done in part by Felicia Jackson of the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, researchers examined the relationship between mean startle, startle habituation, pubertal development, behavioral inhibition system and the error-related negativity. The study examined the startle reflex in fifty-four 8-10 year old girls to determine if reduced habituation to aversive stimuli during adolescence reflects underlying vulnerability to anxiety disorders. The behavioral inhibition system (BIS) regulates aversive motives, in which the goal is to move away from unpleasant stimuli. Error-related negativity (ERN) is an electrical brain signal that is evoked when an individual responds to simple cognitive tasks. 

Behavioral inhibition system (BIS) and error-related negativity (ERN) are two factors that are linked to risk for anxiety. Neither BIS nor ERN were related to mean startle, which is the response to shock However, each measure affected startle habituation, which is quantified as the reduction in the magnitude of startle response nearing the end of the experiment compared to the beginning of the experiment. 

The team found that a higher BIS was related to a larger ERN, and both were linked to a reduced startle habituation. Greater pubertal development was also associated with reduced startle habituation. Using these findings, researchers determined that puberty alters the defense system’s activation of threat and safety cues, which is independent of risk for anxiety and uniquely impacts habituation to each type of cue.

Works Cited:

1. F. Jackson, et al., Pubertal development and anxiety risk independently relate to startle habituation during fear conditioning in 8-14 year-old females. Developmental psychobiology 59, 436–448 (2017). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.21506 

2. Image retrieved from: https://www.picpedia.org/chalkboard/a/anxiety.html 

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