Rats trained to drive tiny cars find it relaxing, scientists report

/ 01:24 PM October 24, 2019

Image: courtesy of the University of Richmond via AFP

Sometimes, life really can be a rat race.

American scientists have reported successfully training a group of rodents to drive tiny cars in exchange for bits of Froot Loops cereal and found that learning the task lowered their stress levels.


Their study not only demonstrates how sophisticated rat brains are, but could one day help in developing new non-pharmaceutical forms of treatment for mental illness, senior author Kelly Lambert of the University of Richmond told AFP on Wednesday.

Lambert said she had long been interested in neuroplasticity — how the brain changes in response to experience and challenges — and particularly wanted to explore how well rats that were housed in more natural settings (“enriched environments”) performed against those kept in labs.


She and colleagues modified a robot car kit by adding a clear plastic food container to form a driver compartment with an aluminum plate placed on the bottom.


Image: courtesy of the University of Richmond via AFP

A copper wire was threaded horizontally across the cab to form three bars: left, center and right.

When a rat placed itself on the aluminum floor and touched the wire, the circuit was complete and the car moved in the direction selected.

Seventeen rats were trained over several months to drive around an arena 150 centimeters by 60 centimeters made of plexiglass.

Writing in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, the researchers said the animals could indeed be taught to drive forward as well as steer in more complex navigational patterns.

As she had suspected, Lambert found that the animals kept in stimuli-rich environments performed far better than their lab rat counterparts, but “it was actually quite shocking to me that they were so much better,” she said.

The rats’ feces were collected after their trials to test for the stress hormone corticosterone as well as dehydroepiandrosterone, which counters stress.


All rats that underwent training had higher levels of dehydroepiandrosterone, indicating a more relaxed state, which could be linked to the satisfaction of gaining mastery over a new skill, referred to as “self-efficacy” or “agency” in humans.

What’s more, rats that drove themselves showed higher levels of dehydroepiandrosterone as compared to those who were merely passengers when a human-controlled the vehicle, meaning they were less stressed — something that will be familiar to nervous backseat drivers.

The biggest takeaway for Lambert was the potential for new avenues of treatment the work opened up for people suffering from mental health conditions.

“There’s no cure for schizophrenia or depression,” she said. “And we need to catch up, and I think we need to look at different animal models and different types of tasks and really respect that behavior can change our neurochemistry.” IB/JB


Meet ‘le blob’ Paris zoo’s new star attraction

Woman living in van gives up all 300 of her rats

Musk says ‘fart, goat, jungle sounds’ for Tesla cars coming soon

TOPICS: animal research, Depression, mental health, rats, schizophrenia
Read Next
Don't miss out on the latest news and information.
View comments

Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.

For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.

© Copyright 1997-2020 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.