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Vennewald, Nadja; Winter, Bernward; Limburg, Karina; Diemer, Julia; Notzon, Swantje; Fohrbeck, Inga; Arolt, Volker; Domschke, Katharina; Pauli, Paul and Zwanzger, Peter (2016): Emotional processing and rTMS: does inhibitory theta burst stimulation affect the human startle reflex? In: Journal of Neural Transmission, Vol. 123, No. 10: pp. 1121-1131

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Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) enables the local and non-invasive modulation of cortical activity and has proved to achieve antidepressant effects. To a lesser extent, rTMS is investigated as a treatment option for anxiety disorders. As the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala represent key components of human emotion regulation, we investigated how prefrontally applied rTMS affects the responsiveness of the subcortical amygdala during a fear-relevant study paradigm to examine potential cortico-limbic effects. Sham-controlled, randomised inhibitory rTMS (continuous theta burst stimulation, TBS) was applied to 102 healthy subjects (female = 54) over the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Subsequently, the emotion-potentiated (unpleasant, neutral, and pleasant International Affective Picture System pictures) acoustic startle response was investigated. Subjective anxiety ratings (anxiety sensitivity, trait and state anxiety) were considered. Picture category affected the startle magnitude as expected for both TBS intervention groups (highest startle response for unpleasant, lowest for pleasant pictures). However, no modulatory effects of TBS on startle potentiation were discerned. No significant interaction effects of TBS intervention, subjective anxiety ratings, and gender were identified. Interestingly, startle habituation was influenced by TBS intervention on a trend-level, with verum TBS leading to an accelerated habituation. We found no evidence for the hypothesis that prefrontal inhibitory TBS affects the responsiveness of the amygdala during the presentation of emotionally relevant stimuli in healthy subjects. Instead, we found accelerated habituation under verum TBS on a statistical trend-level. Hence, some preliminary hints for modulatory effects of inhibitory TBS on basic learning mechanisms could be found.

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