Spatial navigation in geometric mazes: a computational model of rodent behavior

Navigation is defined as the capability of planning and performing a path from the current position towards a desired location. Different types, or strategies, of navigation are used by animals depending on the task they are trying to solve. Visible goals can be approached directly, while navigation to a hidden goal usually requires a memorized representation of relative positions of the goal and surrounding landmarks. Neurophysiological and behavioral experiments on rodents suggest that different brain areas are responsible for the expression of different navigation strategies. Specifically, dorsal striatum has been related to storage and recall of stimulus-response associations underlying simple goal-approaching behaviors, whereas hippocampus is thought to store the spatial representation of the environment. Such a representation is built during an unrewarded spatial exploration and appears to be employed in cases when simple stimulus-response strategies fail. Discovery of neurons with spatially correlated activity, i.e. place cells and grid cells, in the hippocampal formation complements behavioral and lesion data suggesting its role for spatial orientation. The overall objective of this work is to study the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying rodent spatial behavior, in particular those that are responsible for the implementation of different navigational strategies. Special attention is devoted to the question of how various types of sensory cues influence goal-oriented behavior. The model of a navigating rat described in this work is based on functional and anatomical properties of brain regions involved in encoding and storage of space representation and action generation. In particular, place and grid cells are modeled by two interconnected populations of artificial neurons. Together, they form a network for spatial learning, capable of combining different types of sensory inputs to produce a distributed representation of location. Goal-directed actions can be generated in the model via two different neural pathways: the first one drives stimulus-response behavior and associates visual input directly to motor responses; the second one associates motor actions with places and hence depends on the representation of location. The visual input is represented by responses of a large number of orientation-sensitive filters to visual images generated according to the position and orientation of the simulated rat in a virtual three-dimensional world. The model was tested in a large array of tasks designed by analogy to experimental studies on animal behavior. Results of several experimental studies, behavioral as wells as neurophysiological, were reproduced. Based on these results we formulated a hypothesis about the influence that the rat's perception of surrounding environment exerts on goal-oriented behavior. This hypothesis may provide an insight into several issues in animal behavior research that were not addressed by theoretical models until now.

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