Traditionally rodents do not drive motor vehicles. This is mostly human. That didn't stop researchers at the University of Richmond, which made the world a better place with some really great footage of rats driving cars this week.
News of new-age rats was first broken by New Scientist on Tuesday. The research team placed several transparent plastic containers on wheels, invented a copper wire steering, and placed 17 rats for testing in small, closed driving areas. The rats that hit the target received Froot Loops as well-deserved treats.
The text does not really make it fair. View these shots courtesy of the University of Richmond.
It's just incredible. More than that, though, it could actually provide some pretty valuable impressions of how the brains of rats (and possibly by extension) the human brain process stress.
Richmond researchers tested rat droppings for two chemicals during the study: stress-producing corticosterone and stress-relieving dehydroepiandrosterone. The ratio of good things to bad things in fecal tests increased in rats who had to drive a car, while rats that simply rode while passengers operated at less healthy levels.
In other words, rats that feel more in control of their environment produce less stress-stimulating chemicals. At a broad level, one could connect the dots between this and the way the human brain works. The sense of agency that comes with learning a new skill is generally positive.
In addition, rats reared in an environment with more interaction had an easier time to pass the driving test than rats reared in normal cells; their brains were better at adapting to unique challenge.
Dr. Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Richmond, explained that rat studies are good for understanding the human brain because they are essentially working with a smaller version of what we have. Overall, this sounds like a positive experience for researchers.
"My students have been so interested in using some of our old-fashioned behavioral principles for training rats, and we are interested in how they can use the car as an environmental navigation tool," Lambert said. "It was such a great learning opportunity."