Asians Demonstrate Reduced Sensitivity to Unpredictable Threat: A Preliminary Startle Investigation Using Genetic Ancestry in a Multiethnic Sample

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Research has indicated that individuals of Asian descent, relative to other racial groups, demonstrate reduced emotional responding and lower prevalence rates of several anxiety disorders. It is unclear though whether these group differences extend to biomarkers of anxiety disorders and whether genetic differences play a role. This study compared self-identified Caucasian, Latino, and Asian persons (total N = 174) on startle response during a baseline period and while anticipating unpredictable threat—a putative biomarker for certain anxiety disorders—as well as predictable threat. In addition, the association between genetic ancestry and startle response was examined within each racial group to determine potential genetic influences on responding. For the baseline period, Asian participants exhibited a smaller startle response relative to Caucasian and Latino participants, who did not differ. Within each racial group, genetic ancestry was associated with baseline startle. Furthermore, genetic ancestry mediated racial group differences in baseline startle. For the threat conditions, a Race × Condition interaction indicated that Asian participants exhibited reduced startle potentiation to unpredictable, but not predicable, threat relative to Caucasian and Latino participants, who did not differ. However, genetic ancestry was not associated with threat-potentiated startle in any racial group. This study adds to the growing literature on racial differences in emotional responding and provides preliminary evidence suggesting that genetic ancestry may play an important role. Moreover, reduced sensitivity to unpredictable threat may reflect a mechanism for why individuals of Asian descent are at less risk for particular anxiety disorders relative to other racial groups.

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