July 25 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered the neural cells that provide rats a detailed map of their surroundings, and researchers suggest the finding could inspire better navigational software for autonomous vehicles.
Neuroscientists have long theorized that a region of the brain called the hippocampus houses maps of different locations. Scientists suggests these map memories resemble the aerial views offered by apps like Google Maps -- or traditional paper maps. The theory goes that little maps pop up as we navigate our surroundings.
But some scientists suggest these maps must first be transformed into Google's "street view" in order for them to be utilized. This translation process allows the navigator to relate the boundaries of the aerial map and the landmarks within to our own personal positioning and perspective.
Now, for the first time, scientists have confirmed the existence of street-view maps in the brains of rats.
Scientists used electrodes to track the activity of neurons inside brains of rats as the rodents scavenged for strategically placed bits of crushed-up Froot Loops. As the rats tracked down the sugary cereal, a group of cells in the striatum, known as egocentric boundary cells, fired rapidly.
"[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,'" Boston University researcher Jake Hinman said in a news release.
According to Hinman and his colleagues, the egocentric boundary cells produce street view-like maps that offer navigational cues, alerting rats that there's an obstacle on the left or a wall on the right.
"These [boundary-cell] neurons are our first step in figuring out how animals use these two strings of information to influence each other," said William Chapman, a postdoctoral researcher at Boston University. "Based on where you think you are in the environment, you might expect a wall in a certain location. If it's not there, you use that to update what you're doing in that [moment in] time, but you also update your representation of where you are."
The research, which was partially funded by a $7.5 million multidisciplinary grant from the Department of Defense, could pave the way for improved navigational software for robots.
Robots are needed to conduct work that is too dangerous for humans, like surveying terrain compromised by a disaster, like the site of nuclear meltdown.
"One [application for this research] would be for rescue-type operations or salvage-type operations," said Michael Hasselmo, director of Boston University's Center for Systems Neuroscience.
There is still plenty more research to be done before egocentric boundary cells can be translated for use in robotics software. The latest tests -- detailed this week in the journal Nature Communications -- only demonstrated how the boundary cells responded to large, stationary obstacles like walls. In followup studies, scientists plan to test how the cells respond to the presence of moving objects and people.