Life Science Do rats creep you out? Better stay off the highway then

Do rats creep you out? Better stay off the highway then

Professor Kelly Lambert wondered if teaching rats to drive might be good for their mental health. And it is. Photo: University of Richmond
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Buy a pet rat and the pet shop owner is bound to tell you: Buy another one, rats get lonely and then depressed.

On the other hand, rats are suckers for peer pressure.

A 2007 Canadian experiment found that Norwegian rats, when given a choice between bad-tasting and good-tasting food, will choose the bad-tasting food if they see it favoured by other rats.

This led the researchers to conclude that rats are subject to conformity, even when it works against their own experience and best interest.

A 2013 study found that adolescent mice are more likely to drink alcohol in the company of other mice than when alone.

All of this suggests to me that rodents have poor self-esteem and need to get out more – a little more “me” time, a little more sense of agency and achievement.

Please be sitting down …

Hence my excitement at the following news: Rats have been taught how to drive. For the sake of their mental health.

And, as it goes for humans – when the conditions are fine – going for a drive seemed to relax the rat motorists.

Researchers at the University of Richmond, Virginia, built a tiny car for rats out of a clear plastic food container on wheels, with an aluminium floor and three copper bars functioning as a steering wheel.

A total of 17 rats were trained to drive in rectangular arenas.

Rats who passed their driver’s education were rewarded with Froot Loops (a sugar-rich breakfast cereal that could well have sent the rats into an emotional spiral).

Rat drivers versus Uber passenger rats

“We already knew that rodents could recognise 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,” said Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience Kelly Lambert in a prepared statement.

“They learned to navigate the car in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward.”

Professor Lambert and her research colleagues have just published this research in the Behavioural Brain Research journal. According to a statement from the university, their findings include:

Rats’ brains are more flexible than previously thought

This finding could be used to understand how learning new skills may build a sense of control over the animal’s environment that may ultimately reduce stress.

“Because so many psychiatric illnesses such as depression and various anxiety disorders are exacerbated by stress, anything that relieves stress may provide a buffer against the onset of mental illness.”

Rats that participated in the driving training had healthier stress hormone profiles than they had before their training

The researchers assessed hormones by measuring levels of two hormones: Corticosterone, a marker of stress, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which counteracts stress.

As the rats made progress in their driver training, the ratio of the healthy hormone DHEA to corticosterone in the rats’ poop increased.

Uber passenger rats were more stressed than driver rats  

In a previous study presented at the International Behavioral Neuroscience Society, Professor Lambert’s team compared driving rats to passenger (Uber) rats.

They drove the Uber rats around in a remote-control car for the same distances as the yoked driver rats so that the experiences were matched other than having control of the “wheel”.

In this study the driving rats had higher DHEA levels (healthy hormone change) than the Uber rats.

“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,” Professor Lambert said.

Professor Lambert is now planning follow-up experiments to understand how the brain changes to accommodate the acquired driving skills – that is, the neuroplasticity that accompanies the driving training.

Which is fine. But more importantly, we need to know if rats go Vroooom when hooning along.

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