New "Startle" Study at Yale is Examining Impact of PMS on the Body's Startle Reflex

To help improve treatment for premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and the more serious premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), researchers at Yale are examining the body’s emotional and physiological responses across the menstrual cycle.

“We are trying to determine whether menstrual cycle phase has an impact on the body’s startle reflex and whether the menstrual cycle effect is different in women with PMDD compared to a healthy control group,” said principal investigator, C. Neill Epperson, assistant professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology at Yale.

PMS is a complex disorder affecting millions of women. It is characterized by varying degrees of body aches and water retention, migraine headaches and fatigue, irritability and impatience. The more severe mood-related cousin to PMS is PMDD. Women with PMDD may experience physical discomfort prior to their menstrual periods, but they also experience severe mood symptoms such as depression and anger. About 80% of women of reproductive age experience some PMS symptoms, while 3% to 7% of women meet the criteria for PMDD.

Epperson and her team will test changes in physiological responses (startle, heart rate and skin conductance) while study participants are viewing pleasant, neutral and unpleasant pictures. Pleasant pictures may include babies or a kitten, a neutral picture could be of a trashcan or a soda and a negative picture could be of violence or deformity. They will test the startle and emotional responses of healthy females and women with PMDD at different times in the menstrual cycle. Men will also be included in the study as a comparison group.

“The attempt to relate hormonal fluctuations during the different phases of menstrual cycle to emotional reactivity can lead to better understanding of both healthy women and women with PMDD,” Epperson said. “This may also lead to more specific and effective prevention and treatment programs.”

Epperson and her team are in the process of recruiting 22 women with PMDD, 22 healthy menstruating women and 22 healthy males for the study. For more information or to participate in the study, please call 203-764-9935.

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Media Contact

Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326