A connectionist model of spatial learning in the rat

When animals explore an environment, they store useful spatial information in their brains. In subsequent visits, they can recall this information and thus avoid dangerous places or find again a food location. This ability, which may be crucial for the animal's survival, is termed "spatial learning". In the late 1940s, theoretical considerations have led researchers to the conclusion that rats establish a "cognitive map" of their environment. This spatial representation can then be used by the animal in order to navigate towards a rewarding location. In 1971, researchers have for the first time found direct evidence that the hippocampus, a brain area in the limbic system, may contain such a cognitive map. The activity of neurons in the hippocampus of rats tends to be highly correlated with the animal's position within the environment. These "place cells" have since been the target of a large body of research. Apart from spatial learning, the hippocampus seems to be involved in a more general type of learning, namely in the formation of so-called "episodic memories". Models of hippocampal function could thus provide valuable insights for the understanding of memory processes in general. Insights from animal navigation could also prove beneficial for the design of autonomous mobile robots. constructing a consistent map of the environment from experience, and using it for solving navigation problems are difficult tasks. Incorporating principles borrowed from animal navigation may help building more robust and autonomous robots. The main objective of this thesis is to develop a neural network model of spatial learning in the rat. The system should be capable of learning how to navigate to a hidden reward location based on realistic sensory input. The system is validated on a mobile robot. Our model consists of several interconnected brain regions, each represented by a population of neurons. The model closely follows experimental results on functional, anatomical and neurophysiological properties of these regions. One population, for instance, models the hippocampal place cells. A head-direction system closely interacts with the place cells and endows the robot with a sense of direction. A population of motor-related cells codes for the direction of the next movement. Associations are learnt between place cells and motor cells in order to navigate towards a goal location. This study allows us to make experimental predictions on functional and neurophysiological properties of the modelled brain regions. In our validation experiments, the robot successfully establishes a spatial representation. The robot can localise itself in the environment and quickly learns to navigate to the hidden goal location.

Gerstner, Wulfram
Lausanne, EPFL
Other identifiers:
urn: urn:nbn:ch:bel-epfl-thesis2951-6

 Record created 2005-03-16, last modified 2018-01-27

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