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Wearable Devices Explored to Detect Emotional States

Rose Faghih

Rose Faghih (University of Houston)

15 May 2018. An engineering lab in Houston, Texas is developing techniques for assessing a person’s mental state by measuring changes in the skin’s chemistry using sensors worn on the wrist. The 2-year project led by University of Houston electrical engineering professor Rose Faghih is funded by a $175,000 grant from National Science Foundation.

Faghih and colleagues are seeking more economical, yet still effective techniques for measuring a person’s mental state and brain dynamics than current technologies, such as electroencephalograms, or EEGs. With EEGs, individuals need to wear electrodes in a cap or attached to the scalp, which can work in a controlled setting like a doctor’s office or lab, but not in day-to-day life. The researchers instead propose indirect measures of a person’s emotional state, with chemical indicators in the skin.

In her computational medicine lab, Faghih studies hormones in the body’s endocrine system that correspond to changes in the nervous system. For example, a threatening encounter can trigger signals from the hypothalamus at the base of the brain to boost release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol from the adrenal glands, located near the kidneys. While occasional fluctuations in these hormone levels are normal, frequent and repeated arousal states can lead to long-term health problems, including sleep loss, anxiety, and depression.

The lab’s researchers developed algorithms for interpreting changes in the skin’s electrical conductivity that result from these hormonal changes and relating those changes to an individual’s state of arousal or fatigue. The technology is described in a number of publications, most recently in March 2018.

In the new project, the Houston team plans to develop devices on the wrist with these algorithms for measuring and controlling sharp, unwanted swings in emotional states. The wrist-worn system would detect undesired brain pulses through changes in skin conductivity, then generate electrical stimulation to correct the imbalance. The researchers would also validate the device’s measurements and responses with concurrent data assessing subjects’ emotional states from hormone releases.

“Decoding brain states using wrist-worn wearables will transform how mental-stress-related diseases are diagnosed and treated,” says Faghih in a university statement. “Instead of getting information directly from the brain we can use skin conductance data collected by a smart watch.”

Faghih foresees scenarios where a wearable system like the one being developed could prevent more serious problems by responding immediately, or present practical, easy-to-implement solutions. “With our measurement of cortisol,” notes Faghih, “we could see that a patient is at risk of developing chronic fatigue syndrome before it occurs.” And the solution need not be complex or expensive. “For example if the data indicates they need to relax,” she says, “maybe their phone could begin to play relaxing music or the phone automatically calls a loved one for support.”

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