In silico Interrogation of Insect Central Complex Suggests Computational Roles for the Ellipsoid Body in Spatial Navigation

Front Behav Neurosci. 2017 Aug 3;11:142. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00142. eCollection 2017.


The central complex in the insect brain is a composite of midline neuropils involved in processing sensory cues and mediating behavioral outputs to orchestrate spatial navigation. Despite recent advances, however, the neural mechanisms underlying sensory integration and motor action selections have remained largely elusive. In particular, it is not yet understood how the central complex exploits sensory inputs to realize motor functions associated with spatial navigation. Here we report an in silico interrogation of central complex-mediated spatial navigation with a special emphasis on the ellipsoid body. Based on known connectivity and function, we developed a computational model to test how the local connectome of the central complex can mediate sensorimotor integration to guide different forms of behavioral outputs. Our simulations show integration of multiple sensory sources can be effectively performed in the ellipsoid body. This processed information is used to trigger continuous sequences of action selections resulting in self-motion, obstacle avoidance and the navigation of simulated environments of varying complexity. The motor responses to perceived sensory stimuli can be stored in the neural structure of the central complex to simulate navigation relying on a collective of guidance cues, akin to sensory-driven innate or habitual behaviors. By comparing behaviors under different conditions of accessible sources of input information, we show the simulated insect computes visual inputs and body posture to estimate its position in space. Finally, we tested whether the local connectome of the central complex might also allow the flexibility required to recall an intentional behavioral sequence, among different courses of actions. Our simulations suggest that the central complex can encode combined representations of motor and spatial information to pursue a goal and thus successfully guide orientation behavior. Together, the observed computational features identify central complex circuitry, and especially the ellipsoid body, as a key neural correlate involved in spatial navigation.

Keywords: central complex; cognitive map; computational model; ellipsoid body; insect brain; lateral accessory lobes; spatial navigation.