Chieti Node

Thermal variation of the autonomic nervous system: Forming a sense of self .    Stephanos Ioannou & Arcangelo Merla

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is an extensive network of interconnected neurons which controls and regulates the internal organs, glands and vasculature. Residing in the hypothalamus, its Greek composite name “autonomy” implies that this complex system functions independently of superior cortical structures, in contrast to others. Changes in the ANS function happen at the sub-cortical level such as the limbic system without any conscious control (Pegna, Khateb, Lazeyrus, Seghier, 2004). The ANS is divided into two main subsystems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system (Kallat, 2009).

In situations of either emotional or physical distress, the sympathetic nervous system is taking action preparing the organism for the well known “fight or flight” response. Survival strategies as such entail vigorous physical activity in order to support these demands physiological changes take place. Preparing the body for emergency the ANS increases cardiac output, restrains the metabolically costly gastrointestinal tract and sweat glands lubricate the skin protecting it from injury (Porges, 2001). In extent during prolonged periods of intense internal organ activity the inner body starts heating up. Thus, in order to avoid injury and even death, it increases blood flow to the surface of the skin. There with the help of sweat and the current environmental situation it cools down, achieving temperature homeostasis (Cannon, 1929; Gleeson, 1998; McEwen, 2000).

Since the above events are metabolically exhaustive, the organism developed counter measures that act as a “sympathetic break”. This break, situated in the brainstem, is the 10th cranial nerve. When engaged, it facilitates the initiation of the parasympathetic nervous system enabling restoration of normal physiological function permitting restoration, relaxation as well as social interaction (Porges, Doussard-Roosevelt, Portales, Greenspan, 1996).

Several techniques as well as experimental paradigms have been used to study how the human ANS reacts in stressful emotional situations. So far, the golden standard for observing psychophysiological phenomena has been galvanic skin response (GSR) (Uncini Pullman, Lovelace, & Gambi, 1988) electromyography (EMG) (Scheirer, Fernandez, Klein, Picard, 2001), blood volume pulse (BVP) (Eder, Elam, Wallin 2009) as well as respiration patterns (Boiten, 1996). The limiting factor is that these techniques provide a lot of challenges during experimentation such as the fact that they need to be in direct contact with the individual (Project Cyborg). Overcoming these limitations, functional Thermal Infrared Imaging (fTII) provides a novel ecological method on which a variety of psychophysiological parameters can be examined (Jones & Plassmann 2002; Nhan & Chau,  2010;  Pavlidis,  Levine,  2002; Phillips, 2002; Tsiamyrtzis, Dowdall, Shastri, Pavlidis; Otsuka et al. 2002, Shastry, Merla, Tsiamyrtzis, Pavlidis, 2007; Merla, 2009). In extent facial thermal imagery promises to be a powerful tool not only for studying emotional responses but also verbal  as well as non-verbal inter-individual interactions.

Figure 1: Shows the temperature variation of the child during the 6 phases (Baseline,Robot Presentation, Playing,  Mishap, Entrance Experimenter and Soothing).

fTII has shown that during situations of pleasure, pain, fear or distress, the average cutaneous temperature of the face changes (Merla & Romani, 2007).  Temperature variation can be extracted from facial regions such as the forehead, nose as well as the maxillary area (Drummond  & Lance  1987).

The goal of this study study is  to examine the facial thermal child’s responses in situation of distress and provides an extension of the study conducted by Ebisch, S.J., et al., (2011). The experimental paradigm was taken by Cole et al., (1992) which was a doll pre-designed to break creating distress to the child. In the current experiment a robot was used (Ebisch, S.J., et al., 2011). Adding to this paradigm and using the same method, a developmental study showed that when children of age 3 break something of materialistic value, they express anxiety and feelings of guilt (Kochanska, G., Gross N. J., Lin M., Nichols K. E. 2002). Below some preliminary results of the study are shown about the temperature variation of faces which demonstrates autonomic activity and moral development of a 3 year old child.

Table 1: One-way ANOVA between conditions showing a significant difference in the temperature of the nose between Baseline and Mishap as well as Baseline and Entrance of the Experimenter which indicates the transition from the parasympathetic to the sympathetic system.


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