Scientists Taught Rats How To Drive

Scientists claim that they successfully trained the rats to drive tiny cars.

They made a "car" out of a clear plastic food container attached to an aluminum plate, fitted with a set of wheels.

As the rats were raised in two different environments - a lab and what the research team termed an "enriched environment" - those raised in the latter became significantly better drivers than those of the former.

While acknowledging that human beings are "more complicated" than rats, Lambert said the scientists are searching for "universal truths" about how minds interact with the surroundings to sustain optimal mental health.

The study involved six female and 11 male rats, who the researchers taught to pilot little cars with aluminium floors and three copper bars serving as a steering mechanisms.

When the rats grasped the copper bars with their paws, it created an electrical current that powered the auto and moved it in different directions, depending on which bar the rats were holding on to. Moving the vehicle forward usually led the rats to a sugary treat of Froot Loops.

Lambert has shown in previous research studies that rats become less stressed after they master hard tasks like digging up buried food, suggesting they may get the same kind of satisfaction as people do when they acquire a new skill.

That result was reinforced when the rats were given "passengers", with researchers noting that only the animals actually driving the auto saw a decrease in stress. The rat-poop results revealed increased dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) - the hormone that counteracts stress.

What gave the rats incentive to actually drive in the right direction?

The driving rats held an interest in driving during the whole trial duration and exhibited more learning ability compared to less stimulated rats. The results of the study could impact future research on how Parkinson's disease alters motor skills and spatial function in humans, Lambert told New Scientist.

The complex cognitive, motor and behavioral functions in the rats that were demonstrated in the study could allow researchers to learn about the neural basis of the hard functions, said Chandramouli Chandrasekaran, a professor of neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine.

The feeling of agency that comes with learning a new skill is generally a positive one. Here's more from New Scientist. Emotional resilience is one of the first lines of defense against mental illnesses like depression, she said, and learning what behaviors build that up could clue physicians in on how to treat those illnesses in humans.

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