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Dissociable impact of childhood trauma and deployment trauma on affective modulation of startle


Trauma disorders are often associated with alterations in aversive anticipation and disruptions in emotion/fear circuits. Heightened or blunted anticipatory responding to negative cues in adulthood may be due to differential trauma exposure during development, and previous trauma exposure in childhood may also modify effects of subsequent trauma in adulthood. The aim of the current investigation was to examine the contributions of childhood trauma on affective modulation of startle before and after trauma exposure in adulthood (a combat deployment). Adult male participants from the Marine Resilience Study with (n = 1145) and without (n = 1312) a history of reported childhood trauma completed an affective modulation of startle task to assess aversive anticipation. Affective startle response was operationalized by electromyography (EMG) recording of the orbicularis oculi muscle in response to acoustic stimuli when anticipating positive and negative affective images. Startle responses to affective images were also assessed. Testing occurred over three time-points; before going on a 7 month combat deployment and 3 and 6 months after returning from deployment. Startle response when anticipating negative images was greater compared to pleasant images across all three test periods. Across all 3 time points, childhood trauma was consistently associated with significantly blunted startle when anticipating negative images, suggesting reliable effects of childhood trauma on aversive anticipation. Conversely, deployment trauma was associated with increased startle reactivity post-deployment compared to pre-deployment, which was independent of childhood trauma and image valence. These results support the hypothesis that trauma exposure during development vs. adulthood may have dissociable effects on aversive anticipation and arousal mechanisms. Further study in women and across more refined age groups is needed to test generalizability and identify potential developmental windows for these differential effects.

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