Raw startle eye blink responses from Respiratory modulation of startle eye blink: a new approach to assess afferent signals from the respiratory system

Current approaches to assess interoception of respiratory functions cannot differentiate between the physiological basis of interoception, i.e. visceral-afferent signal processing and the psychological process of attention focusing. Furthermore, they typically involve invasive procedures, e.g. induction of respiratory occlusions or the inhalation of CO<sub>2</sub>-enriched air. The aim of this study was to test the capacity of startle methodology to reflect respiratory-related afferent signal processing, independent of invasive procedures. Forty-two healthy participants were tested in a spontaneous breathing and in a 0.25 Hz paced breathing condition. Acoustic startle noises of 105 dB(A) intensity (50 ms white noise) were presented with identical trial frequency at peak and on-going inspiration and expiration, based on a new pattern detection method, involving the online processing of the respiratory belt signal. The results show the highest startle magnitudes during on-going expiration compared with any other measurement points during the respiratory cycle, independent of whether breathing was spontaneous or paced. Afferent signals from slow adapting phasic pulmonary stretch receptors may be responsible for this effect. This study is the first to demonstrate startle modulation by respiration. These results offer the potential to apply startle methodology in the non-invasive testing of interoception-related aspects in respiratory psychophysiology.This article is part of the themed issue ‘Interoception beyond homeostasis: affect, cognition and mental health’.