AI recreates activity patterns that brain cells use in navigation

By Alison Abbott

Scientists have used artificial intelligence (AI) to recreate the complex neural codes that the brain uses to navigate through space. The feat demonstrates how powerful AI algorithms can assist conventional neuroscience research to test theories about the brain’s workings — but the approach is not going to put neuroscientists out of work just yet, say the researchers.

The computer program, details of which were published in Nature on 9 May1, was developed by neuroscientists at University College London (UCL) and AI researchers at the London-based Google company DeepMind. It used a technique called deep learning — a type of AI inspired by the structures in the brain — to train a computer-simulated rat to track its position in a virtual environment.

The program surprised the scientists by spontaneously generating hexagonal-shaped patterns of activity akin to those generated by navigational cells in the mammalian brain called grid cells. Grid cells have been shown in experiments with real rats to be fundamental to how an animal tracks its own position in space.

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