Somatic and neuroendocrine responses to standard and biologically salient acoustic startle stimuli in monkeys

Parker, KJ; Hyde, SA; Buckmaster, CL; Tanaka, SM; Brewster, KK; Schatzberg, AF; Lyons, DM; Woodward, SH
Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2010; 36(4):547-56.


The startle response, a simple defensive response to a sudden stimulus signaling proximal threat, has been well studied in rodents and humans, but has been rarely examined in monkeys. The first goal of the present studies was to develop a minimally immobilizing startle measurement paradigm and validate its usefulness by testing two core features of the startle response (habituation and graded responsivity) in squirrel monkey subjects. Two different types of startle stimuli were used: standard broad-band noise bursts, and species-specific alarm vocalizations ("yaps") which are elicited in response to threat in both wild and captive animals. The second goal of the present studies was to test whether yaps produce enhanced startle responsivity due to their increased biological salience compared to simple, non-biologically relevant noise bursts. The third goal of the present studies was to evaluate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis response to startle stimuli, as little is known about the stress-activating role of startle stimuli in any species. These experiments determined that the whole-body startle response in relatively unrestrained squirrel monkeys habituates across repeated stimulus presentations and is proportional to stimulus intensity. In addition, differential habituation was observed across biologically salient vs. standard acoustic startle stimuli. Responses to "yaps" were larger initially but attenuated more rapidly over trials. Responses to "yaps" were also larger in the early subepochs of the response window but then achieved a lower level than responses to noise bursts in the later subepochs. Finally, adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol concentrations were significantly elevated above baseline after startle stimuli presentation, though monkeys did not exhibit differential HPA axis responses to the two types of startle stimuli. The development of monkey startle methodology may further enhance the utility of this paradigm in translational studies of human stress-related psychiatric disorders.