Section: Application Domains


At the interface between neurosciences, mathematics, automatics and humanoid robotics, an entire new approach to neurophysiology is emerging. It arouses a strong interest in the four communities and its development requires a joint effort and the sharing of complementary tools.

A family of extremely interesting problems concerns the understanding of the mechanisms supervising some sensorial reactions or biomechanics actions such as image reconstruction by the primary visual cortex, eyes movement and body motion.

In order to study these phenomena, a promising approach consists in identifying the motion planning problems undertaken by the brain, through the analysis of the strategies that it applies when challenged by external inputs. The role of control is that of a language allowing to read and model neurological phenomena. The control algorithms would shed new light on the brain's geometric perception (the so-called neurogeometry [79]) and on the functional organization of the motor pathways.

  • A challenging problem is that of the understanding of the mechanisms which are responsible for the process of image reconstruction in the primary visual cortex V1.

    The visual cortex areas composing V1 are notable for their complex spatial organization and their functional diversity. Understanding and describing their architecture requires sophisticated modeling tools. At the same time, the structure of the natural and artificial images used in visual psychophysics can be fully disclosed only using rather deep geometric concepts. The word “geometry" refers here to the internal geometry of the functional architecture of visual cortex areas (not to the geometry of the Euclidean external space). Differential geometry and analysis both play a fundamental role in the description of the structural characteristics of visual perception.

    A model of human perception based on a simplified description of the visual cortex V1, involving geometric objects typical of control theory and sub-Riemannian geometry, has been first proposed by Petitot ( [80]) and then modified by Citti and Sarti ( [45]). The model is based on experimental observations, and in particular on the fundamental work by Hubel and Wiesel [54] who received the Nobel prize in 1981.

    In this model, neurons of V1 are grouped into orientation columns, each of them being sensitive to visual stimuli arriving at a given point of the retina and oriented along a given direction. The retina is modeled by the real plane, while the directions at a given point are modeled by the projective line. The fiber bundle having as base the real plane and as fiber the projective line is called the bundle of directions of the plane.

    From the neurological point of view, orientation columns are in turn grouped into hypercolumns, each of them sensitive to stimuli arriving at a given point, oriented along any direction. In the same hypercolumn, relative to a point of the plane, we also find neurons that are sensitive to other stimuli properties, such as colors. Therefore, in this model the visual cortex treats an image not as a planar object, but as a set of points in the bundle of directions of the plane. The reconstruction is then realized by minimizing the energy necessary to activate orientation columns among those which are not activated directly by the image. This gives rise to a sub-Riemannian problem on the bundle of directions of the plane.

  • Another class of challenging problems concern the functional organization of the motor pathways.

    The interest in establishing a model of the motor pathways, at the same time mathematically rigorous and biologically plausible, comes from the possible spillovers in robotics and neurophysiology. It could help to design better control strategies for robots and artificial limbs, yielding smoother and more progressive movements. Another underlying relevant societal goal (clearly beyond our domain of expertise) is to clarify the mechanisms of certain debilitating troubles such as cerebellar disease, chorea and Parkinson's disease.

    A key issue in order to establish a model of the motor pathways is to determine the criteria underlying the brain's choices. For instance, for the problem of human locomotion (see [27]), identifying such criteria would be crucial to understand the neural pathways implicated in the generation of locomotion trajectories.

    A nowadays widely accepted paradigm is that, among all possible movements, the accomplished ones satisfy suitable optimality criteria (see [89] for a review). One is then led to study an inverse optimal control problem: starting from a database of experimentally recorded movements, identify a cost function such that the corresponding optimal solutions are compatible with the observed behaviors.

    Different methods have been taken into account in the literature to tackle this kind of problems, for instance in the linear quadratic case [59] or for Markov processes [78]. However all these methods have been conceived for very specific systems and they are not suitable in the general case. Two approaches are possible to overcome this difficulty. The direct approach consists in choosing a cost function among a class of functions naturally adapted to the dynamics (such as energy functions) and to compare the solutions of the corresponding optimal control problem to the experimental data. In particular one needs to compute, numerically or analytically, the optimal trajectories and to choose suitable criteria (quantitative and qualitative) for the comparison with observed trajectories. The inverse approach consists in deriving the cost function from the qualitative analysis of the data.