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Blood Suckers of Computational Neuroethology

October 21, 2011

There is a field known as computational neuroethology that looks at behavioral patterns and is closely related to computational neuroscience. It has been of particular interest to motor control enthusiasts like myself who study central pattern generation. In the modeling of sensorimotor integration, one usually considers the interaction of three systems: brain, body, and environment. The following quote summarizes the issue:

“The role of the nervous system is not so much to direct or to program behavior as to shape it and evoke the appropriate patterns of dynamics from the entire coupled system.” (Chiel HJ, Beer RD. The brain has a body: adaptive behavior emerges from interactions of nervous system, body and environment. Trends Neurosci. 1997 Dec;20(12):553-7.)

A striking example of such interactions is the change in dynamics that results when the environment is drastically changed, and I recently found some great video footage that demonstrates this. I was aware of the lamprey modeling work that was pioneered by Sten Grillner, and recently I came across some fascinating videos of lamprey-inspired robots on the website of the Lampetra project. While the lamprey family has a certain fame because of some bloodsucking family members, it is of interest to us modelers because of what we have learned from their locomotion dynamics. Watch any of the videos with the robots in water and you might start to think it’s just random wiggling without anything particularly dynamic. Then look at this one of a suspended robot out of the water and you should see a major difference. My understanding is that this is very similar to what a real lamprey will do out of the water. Clearly the environmental component is critical to the dynamical pattern evoked by the control system which was designed for a specific environment.

This robotic demonstration is interesting to me because it is a tangible example of the brain-body-environment connections. It highlights the value of considering more than just the nervous system when one is trying to model the nervous system. Also, the robots are pretty cute as compared to the bloodsuckers that inspired their creation.

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