Processing emotions: Effects of menstrual cycle phase and premenstrual symptoms on the startle reflex, facial EMG and heart rate

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Abstract

Emotional reactivity varies across the menstrual cycle although physiological findings are not entirely consistent. We assessed facial EMG and heart rate (HR) changes in healthy free cycling women (N=45) with an emotional startle paradigm both during the early follicular and the late luteal phase, verified by repeated salivary 17β-estradiol, progesterone and testosterone assessments. Cycle phase impacted startle responses with larger magnitudes during the luteal phase. Notably, this effect was only present when premenstrual symptoms and sequence of lab sessions were included as co-variates. At rest, participants showed a tendency towards higher HR and reduced high frequency (HF) power during the luteal phase indicating reduced parasympathetic tone. HF power was also negatively associated with startle magnitudes. HR changes in response to emotional images differed between the two cycle phases. Initial HR deceleration was more marked during the follicular phase particularly when viewing negative pictures. However, cycle phase did not significantly impact corrugator and zygomaticus activity in response to emotional pictures. Among the three gonadal steroids, correlation patterns were most consistent for testosterone. During the follicular phase, testosterone was associated with zygomaticus activity while viewing neutral or positive pictures and with less pronounced HR deceleration in response to negative images. During the luteal phase, testosterone was negatively associated with fear potentiated startle. The findings underscore the importance of considering menstrual cycle phase when investigating physiological indicators of emotion. However, the modulating effect of premenstrual symptoms also emphasizes potential inter-individual differences.

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