CEN Projects

The topics below could be adapted on the basis of the student attitude and interests. Importantly, new project topics proposed by the student could also be addressed.

Intrinsic motivations: computational models and empirical experiments

Topic and its relevance. Intrinsic motivations (IMs) are related to curiosity, exploration, the interest for novel objects and surprising evens, and the drive to learn motor skill. IMs operate in the absence of a direct biological pressure and feedback (as in the case of extrinsic motivations, i.e. the classic motivations related to homeostatic regulations and survival). IMs are a fundamental topic of investigation as they play a key role in human well being, art, science, and technology. They are also important for autonomous robotics as they allow the construction of cumulative learning robots.

Questions and goals. What is the overall biological function of IMs? What are the specific cognitive functions of IMs? What are the different types of IM mechanisms? How do IMs guide other cognitive processes to accomplish open-ended learning?


+Me: wearable mechatronic device for autism and pervasive developmental disorders 

Topic and its relevance. Autism (or Autism Spectrum Disorder – ASD) is a very important mental disorder affecting 1 out of 60 people in the world. The most impariging sympthom of autism is the difficulty to communicate with others. This project is directed to build an interactive wearable device that supports and motivates social interaction, and contributes to develop communication skills in children with autism.

Questions and goals. Which sensors and interfaces should the device have to best support and motivate autistic children, characterised by a peculiar sensation processing, to communicate with the outer world? Which sensors and interfaces should the device have to allow caregivers to best engage and communicate with autistic children? Which tests can be carried out to evaluate, select and develop the features of the wearable?


Basal ganglia-cortex-cerebellar system: models and applications to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and dependencies 

Topic and its relevance.  Basal-ganglia, cortex, and cerebellum  form a whole system and closely cooperate to implement a large number of brain functions subserving adaptive behaviour. The specific brain mechanisms underlying these functions are only in part known. Computational models can play a key role in understanding them given the highly-dynamical complex-system nature of the basal ganglia-cortex-cerebellum system. The study of this system is also important for understanding and treating neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson caused by the progressive death of dopaminergic neurons. Indeed, the system-level model-based study empowers the tracing of the effects that the Parkinson dopaminergic disregulation causes onto the whole basal ganglia-cortex-cerebellum system, thus helping to understand the multifaceted sympthoms of the diseases expressed in different patients sub-types (e.g., tremor vs. akinetic).

Questions and goals. How does dopamine decrease produce the main sympthoms of Parkinson? What are the different underlying causes of different typologies of sympthoms manifested by Parkinson patients? Which guidelines do computational models give to therapy?


Children’s development of reaching and other motor  skills: an embodied model (iCub simulator)

Topic and its relevance. Reaching, i.e. the capacity to get own hands in contact with objects in the environment, is a fundamental motor skill for primates and humans, at the basis of their capacity to interact with, manipulate, and change the world at own benefit. Here we use computational models to understand the mechanisms underlying learning and development of such reaching skill. The study of reaching, and motor skill in general, is supported by the availability of a wealth of empirical data against which models can be tested.

Questions and goals. How can direct-inverse learning and trial-and-error learning lead to develop the reaching skill? What are the stages of development of reaching and how are they characterised in terms of kinematics and dynamics? How can reaching support more complex behaviours such sequences of button presses and obstacle avoidance?