Teaching rats to drive?
Strange as it may sound, it's what a team of researchers at the University of Richmond accomplished as part of a study examining how performing complex tasks — such as driving — could affect treatment for mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
In the name of science, the researchers built a tiny car — picture a clear plastic food container on wheels, with an aluminum floor and three copper bars for a steering wheel.
“We already knew that rodents could recognize objects, press bars and find their way around mazes, but we wondered if rats could learn the more complex task of operating a moving vehicle,” Kelly Lambert, co-author of the study and professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond, said in a statement.
A picture of a rat inside a small car, courtesy of the University of Richmond. (University of Richmond)
According to Lambert and her team, rat brains are good models for human brains since they have the same areas and neurochemicals, albeit on a smaller scale.
They trained six female and 11 male rats to drive the car in confined rectangular areas and published the results of their work in the journal Behavioral Brain Research.
Rats that participated in the driving training had healthier stress hormone profiles than they did before the training, according to the study's conclusion.
“When we measured hormones associated with stress (corticosterone) and resilience (DHEA) in their poop, we found that, regardless of the housing group, the training itself changed the hormones in a healthy trajectory; therefore, we found that driving training led to more resilient stress hormone profiles,” said Lambert.
Since the rats were able to navigate a complex environment, it shows that their brains have "neuroplasticity," according to Lambert.
Rats that performed the driving task correctly were rewarded with pieces of cereal.