Look: Rats driving small cars

Seeing rats drive small cars isn’t the cutest thing you’ll see today?

Today’s excursion is part of a research that shows how these vermin find the task relaxing. This method also helps scientists determine how the performance of complex tasks like driving affects the brain — with the ultimate goal of finding better ways to treat anxiety and depression.

Researchers at the University of Richmond in Virginia have devised miniature vehicles out of a clear plastic food container. It’s mounted on what appears to be a battery-powered, four-wheeled platform, with a piece of aluminum for the floor and three copper bars that function as a steering wheel.

“The rat is an appropriate model for the human brain in many ways since it has all the same areas and neurochemicals as the human brain — just smaller, of course,” said Kelly Lambert, professor of behavioral neuroscience at the university and a co-author of a paper about the research. “Although humans are more complex than rats, we look for ‘universal truths’ about how brains interact with environments to maintain optimal mental health.”

Similar to life-sized automobiles, these rats also had to step on the gas to enable their makeshift vehicles to move and use their paws to steer. They stood on the floor and gripped the copper bars with their paws to complete an electrical circuit. The left, center, and right copper bars also control steering.

The miniature vehicle devised by Kelly Lambert and his team of researchers from the University of Richmond. Source: University of Richmond

Lambert, who led the study published last October 16 in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, told New Scientist that rats can recognize objects, press bars, and find their way around mazes. But, they also aim to see whether rats could learn more sophisticated tasks such as operating a moving vehicle.

‘They learned to navigate the car in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward,” Lambert told the publication.

The study was participated by six female and 11 male rats, where they were rewarded for successfully driving with Froot Loops cereal placed at increased distances around the pen.

Similar to some human beings, the vermin seemed to enjoy their experience with driving — which eventually led to receiving their Froot Loops reward.

A chemical analysis of the animals’ poop after four months of training sessions showed lower levels of the stress hormone, corticosterone, and higher levels of the stress-busting hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). The ratio of the two hormones was flipped in the rats and increased the more they drove.

“We concluded that the rats that actually learned to drive had a greater sense of control over their environment that was accompanied by increased DHEA — something like a rodent version of what we refer to as self-efficacy or agency in humans,” Lambert said in a statement.

Researchers may now use the results of the experiment to help formulate theories on how complex tasks may be able to relieve stress and ultimately depression and anxiety for humans.

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