Defensive activation to (un) predictable interoceptive threat: The NPU respiratory threat test (NPUr)

Mathias Schroijen*, Simona Fantoni, Carmen Rivera, Bram Vervliet, Koen Schruers, Omer Van den Bergh, Ilse Van Diest*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Potentially life-threatening interoceptive sensations easily engage the behavioral defensive system. Resulting fear and anxiety toward interoceptive threat are functionally distinct states that are hypothesized to play a prominent role in the etiology of panic disorder. The present study aimed to investigate whether fear-and anxiety-potentiated startle responses occur to predictable and unpredictable interoceptive threat, respectively. Therefore, we modified the NPU threat test (Schmitz & Grillon, 2012) and replaced the aversive electrocutaneous stimulus with an aversive interoceptive stimulus (a breathing occlusion, making it briefly impossible to breathe). Healthy participants (N=48) underwent three instructed conditions. A visual cue signaled the occlusion in the predictable condition (P), whereas another cue was unrelated to the occurrence of the occlusion in the unpredictable condition (U). The safe condition (N) also had a visual cue, but no occlusion. Both fear-and anxiety-potentiated startle blink responses were observed in response to predictable and unpredictable respiratory threat, respectively. The current study presents and validates the NPU respiratory threat test (NPUr) as an ecologically valid paradigm to study both anxiety and fear in response to a panic-relevant interoceptive threat. The paradigm allows future testing of contextual generalization, investigation of different clinical groups, and more explicit comparisons of defensive responding to interoceptive versus exteroceptive threats.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)905-913
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2016


  • Interoceptive threat
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • (Un)Predictability
  • Startle

Cite this