This study proposes a method for the automatic classification of nonlinear interactions between a strictly periodical event series modelling the activity of an exogenous oscillator working at a fixed and well-known rate and an event series modelling the activity of a self-sustained oscillator forced by the exogenous one. The method is based on a combination of several well-known tools (probability density function of the cyclic relative phase, probability density function of the count of forced events per forcing cycle, conditional entropy of the cyclic relative phase sequence and a surrogate data approach). Classification is reached via a sequence of easily applicable decision rules, thus rendering classification virtually userindependent and fully reproducible. The method classifies four types of dynamics: full uncoupling, quasiperiodicity, phase locking and aperiodicity. In the case of phase locking, the coupling ratio (i.e. n:m) and the strength of the coupling are calculated. The method, validated on simulations of simple and complex phase-locking dynamics corrupted by different levels of noise, is applied to data derived from one anesthetized and artificially ventilated rat to classify the nonlinear interactions between mechanical ventilation and: (1) the discharges of two (contemporaneously recorded) single postganglionic sympathetic neurons innervating the caudal ventral artery in the tail and (2) arterial blood pressure. Under central apnea, the activity of the underlying sympathetic oscillators is perturbed by means of five different lung inflation rates (0.58, 0.64, 0.76, 0.95, 1.99 Hz). While ventilation and arterial pressure are fully uncoupled, ventilation is capable of phase locking sympathetic discharges, thus producing 40% of phase-locked patterns (one case of 2:5, 1:1, 3:2 and 2:2) and 40% of aperiodic dynamics. In the case of phase-locked patterns, the coupling strength is low, thus demonstrating that this pattern is sliding. Non-stationary interactions are observed in 20% of cases. The two discharges behave differently, suggesting the presence of a population of sympathetic oscillators working at different frequencies.
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