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Familial risk for distress and fear disorders and emotional reactivity in adolescence: an event-related potential investigation

  • B. D. Nelson (a1), G. Perlman (a1), G. Hajcak (a1), D. N. Klein (a1) and R. Kotov (a1)...

The late positive potential (LPP) is an event-related potential component that is sensitive to the motivational salience of stimuli. Children with a parental history of depression, an indicator of risk, have been found to exhibit an attenuated LPP to emotional stimuli. Research on depressive and anxiety disorders has organized these conditions into two empirical classes: distress and fear disorders. The present study examined whether parental history of distress and fear disorders was associated with the LPP to emotional stimuli in a large sample of adolescent girls.


The sample of 550 girls (ages 13.5–15.5 years) with no lifetime history of depression completed an emotional picture-viewing task and the LPP was measured in response to neutral, pleasant and unpleasant pictures. Parental lifetime history of psychopathology was determined via a semi-structured diagnostic interview with a biological parent, and confirmatory factor analysis was used to model distress and fear dimensions.


Parental distress risk was associated with an attenuated LPP to all stimuli. In contrast, parental fear risk was associated with an enhanced LPP to unpleasant pictures but was unrelated to the LPP to neutral and pleasant pictures. Furthermore, these results were independent of the adolescent girls’ current depression and anxiety symptoms and pubertal status.


The present study demonstrates that familial risk for distress and fear disorders may have unique profiles in terms of electrocortical measures of emotional information processing. This study is also one of the first to investigate emotional/motivational processes underlying the distress and fear disorder dimensions.

Corresponding author
* Address for correspondence: B. D. Nelson, Department of Psychology, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794, USA. (Email:
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