Contact: Patrick Farrell, 617-358-1185 | pmfarrel@bu.edu

(Boston) – A team led by Boston University College of Arts & Sciences Professor of Psychology Michael Hasselmo has won a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Defense’s Office of Naval Research to study rat brains to learn how to help military robots navigate.

The team will develop biologically inspired algorithms for robotic navigation based on recent data on grid cells recorded in the entorhinal cortex of the rat. In contrast to robots, rodents are highly effective at exploring an environment and returning to rewarding locations. This behavior may depend on neural activity selective to location, including the activity of recently discovered grid cells in the entorhinal cortex.

An active area of robotics research concerns the ability of a robot to perform navigation toward selected goals in the environment, and the capacity for a human operator to communicate with a robot about locations and goals. This includes the requirement of a robot to learn a representation of the environment during exploration while accurately recognizing location, termed simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM).

Grid cells are neurons recorded as a rat explores an environment. The cells respond in an array of locations that can be described as the vertices of tightly packed equilateral triangles, or as a hexagonal grid. Recent models have shown how grid cells can code location based on self-motion information provided by neurons that code head direction or running speed, and have shown how grid cells could arise from oscillations in the entorhinal cortex. Recent imaging data indicates that grid cells may exist in the human cortex.

The researchers on this grant will further develop the models based on biological data and use them to guide the development of algorithms for robotic navigation, and for communication of information about spatial location between human operators and robots.

The researchers on this Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant include Hasselmo, BU College of Arts and Sciences psychology Professors Chantal Stern and Howard Eichenbaum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professors Nicholas Roy, John Leonard, and Matthew Wilson, Professor Ila Fiete at the University of Texas at Austin, and Professor Neil Burgess at University College, London.

The grant, presented July 16th, is for three years with the possibility of extension through a fifth year. It was one of 32 awards from the Defense Department to academic institutions to perform multidisciplinary basic research. The MURI program supports research by teams of investigators that intersect more than one traditional science and engineering discipline in order to accelerate both research progress and transition of research results to application.

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