A mixed filter algorithm for sympathetic arousal tracking from skin conductance and heart rate measurements in Pavlovian fear conditioning

PLoS One. 2020 Apr 23;15(4):e0231659. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0231659. eCollection 2020.


Pathological fear and anxiety disorders can have debilitating impacts on individual patients and society. The neural circuitry underlying fear learning and extinction has been known to play a crucial role in the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders. Pavlovian conditioning, where a subject learns an association between a biologically-relevant stimulus and a neutral cue, has been instrumental in guiding the development of therapies for treating anxiety disorders. To date, a number of physiological signal responses such as skin conductance, heart rate, electroencephalography and cerebral blood flow have been analyzed in Pavlovian fear conditioning experiments. However, physiological markers are often examined separately to gain insight into the neural processes underlying fear acquisition. We propose a method to track a single brain-related sympathetic arousal state from physiological signal features during fear conditioning. We develop a state-space formulation that probabilistically relates features from skin conductance and heart rate to the unobserved sympathetic arousal state. We use an expectation-maximization framework for state estimation and model parameter recovery. State estimation is performed via Bayesian filtering. We evaluate our model on simulated and experimental data acquired in a trace fear conditioning experiment. Results on simulated data show the ability of our proposed method to estimate an unobserved arousal state and recover model parameters. Results on experimental data are consistent with skin conductance measurements and provide good fits to heartbeats modeled as a binary point process. The ability to track arousal from skin conductance and heart rate within a state-space model is an important precursor to the development of wearable monitors that could aid in patient care. Anxiety and trauma-related disorders are often accompanied by a heightened sympathetic tone and the methods described herein could find clinical applications in remote monitoring for therapeutic purposes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms*
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology*
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Young Adult

Grant support

The work was supported in part by the National Science Foundation grant 1755780 CRII: CPS: Wearable Machine Interface Architectures to RTF. URL: https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1755780 The funder did not play any role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.