Newswise — The startle response, often recorded as an eye-blink reflex, is a defensive measure believed to reflect emotional processing. Patients with alcohol use disorders (AUDs) show abnormal startle-reflex responses to alcohol-related stimuli. This study examined startle-reflex responses to various visual stimuli among heavy drinkers, and assessed whether certain patterns predict the development of AUDs four years later.

Researchers measured the startle-reflex responses of 287 men recruited from public health-care centers in Spain: 239 non-dependent, heavy-drinking men and 48 healthy men who comprised the control group. All participants were exposed to four types of pictures: alcohol-related, aversive, appetitive, and neutral. The participants were subsequently examined four years later to determine the predictive value of their startle response on drinking status.

The researchers found that a reduced startle-reflex response to alcohol-related and aversive pictures predicted AUD status in previously heavy drinkers. At follow-up, among the participants who were heavy drinkers initially, 46% met DSM-IV criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence. The authors suggested that a diminished startle-reflex response to alcohol-related and aversive stimuli may reflect a greater reward motivation among vulnerable drinkers and can serve as a clinical marker to predict the future development of AUDs.

Journal Link: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research