Science 3 min read

Mapping Rat's Brain for Future Smarter Self-Driving Vehicles

Scientists use rat models to know where and how the brain stores the map of its surroundings in the hope of improving future self-driving vehicles.

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

A new study at Boston University offers an insight into how the brain’s navigational system works, and how we could leverage this knowledge to create smarter self-driving vehicles.

Scientists have always believed that a part of our brain, the hippocampus, stores maps of our surroundings. However, to use this map in navigating our environment, some researchers theorized that we must be able to place ourselves into a first-person view mentally.

Think of it as a “street-view” version of Google Maps, where we know the boundaries and landmarks concerning ourselves.

The existence of such a biological street view map has always been a theory, until now. Not only did the BU team prove that it exists, but they also identified the part responsible too – at least in rats.

It’s in a deep area of the brain that controls behavior called the striatum.

Mapping the Rat’s Brain

For the study, the researchers attached electrodes inside a rat’s brains to monitor the activities. Next, they dropped the rodent in a room which contains crushed bits of Froot Loops for the rat to find.

During the animal’s scavenger hunt, the researchers noted some severe activities in the specialized brain cells within the striatum – the egocentric boundary cells. These boundary cells fired such that it appeared to guide the rat through their environment.

In a statement to explain how the biological map works, first author of the study, Jake Hinman said:

“[It’s] much like if I were to give you directions to go somewhere, I might tell you, ‘Oh, when you’re walking down the street, once there’s a Starbucks on your left, you’re going to turn right.”

Hinman further explained that the boundary cells in the striatum provided a form of street-view map for the rat. It fired precisely to let the rodent know when it’s close to a wall, or when to turn right.

As simple as the study seem, it could lead to incredible technological breakthroughs.

Creating Self-Driving Vehicles

The ultimate goal of the findings is to develop robots that can navigate in complex environments effectively.

While current machines can move in warehouses with large empty spaces, the navigational skill is still rudimentary. As the terrain gets uneven, robots – including self-driving vehicles – would have a hard time moving autonomously.

However, an understanding of the brain’s natural navigation system could provide insight into a high tech solution for machines. That way, we could send robots to terrains that may be too dangerous for humans.

Director of BU’s Center for Systems Neuroscience and senior author of the study, Michael Hasselmo said:

“One [application for this research] would be for rescue-type operations or salvage-type operations.”

The authors of the study admitted that further research is required to get to that stage.

Read More: Future Self-Driving Cars Won’t Let Drunk Drivers Take Control

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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