Differentiating anxiety from fear: An experimental–pharmacological approach

Julia V. Lippold*, Ulrich Ettinger, René Hurlemann, Philip J. Corr, Martin Reuter, Adam M. Perkins

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Gray’s theory of personality postulates that fear and anxiety are distinct emotional systems with only the latter being sensitive to anxiolytic drugs. His work was mainly based on animal research, and translational studies validating his theory are scarce. Previous work in humans showed an influence of the benzodiazepine lorazepam on both systems, however, dependent on dosage (1 and 2 mg) and personality differences in negative emotionality. The present study aims to replicate these findings, and in addition tests the drug threshold effect by introducing a lower dosage of 0.5 mg lorazepam. Fifty healthy adults (23 males, agemean 22.40, SD ± 3.68) participated in an experimental threat-avoidance paradigm designed to dissociate risk assessment intensity (RAI, reflecting anxiety) and flight intensity (FI, reflecting fear) and completed two self-report questionnaires assessing facets of negative emotionality (Spielberger State Trait Anxiety Inventory and Fear Survey Schedule). In a randomized placebo-controlled within-subjects design, 0.5 and 1 mg of lorazepam were applied per os. Saccadic peak velocity was assessed by means of eye-tracking in order to control for sedating drug effects. Results showed the expected and specific anxiolytic effect of lorazepam on RAI, however, only in the 0.5 mg condition. FI was not influenced by lorazepam, and previous findings of interaction effects of lorazepam with self-reported negative emotionality could not be corroborated. Overall, this study demonstrates anxiolytic effects of lorazepam in dosages ≤1 mg in the absence of a drug effect on fear using a translational behavioural task. However, a putative moderating role of personality on defensive behaviour has to be clarified in future research.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPersonality neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Lorazepam
  • Revised-reinforcement-sensitivity-theory


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