Rat race: Rodents drive tiny cars

Henrietta Brewer
October 25, 2019

Which is why it's surprising to hear that when researchers at the University of Richmond encouraged rats to learn how to drive, the experience ended up making them more emotionally resilient, and even relaxed.

Lambert said her team will focus next on how rats have the capability to learn driving skills and why it seems to alleviate stress, according to New Scientist.

A lab rat drives the "RatCar", Oct. 1, 2019, in Richmond, Va. Scientists report successfully training the rodents to drive tiny cars in exchange for tasty bits of Froot Loops cereal.


Kelly Lambert and her colleagues fashioned the auto out of transparent plastic food containers with an aluminium floor, three copper bars and motorized wheels underneath. When a rat stood on the aluminum floor of the auto held onto the car's copper steering bars, it completed an electrical circuit that powered the car's drive wheels. The rats, when properly trained, could control the direction of the auto by gripping the left, middle, or right copper bar with their tiny little paws.

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 researcher aptly tested their driving skills by placing the food rewards at increasingly different spots around the arena.


"They learned to navigate the vehicle in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward", said Lambert.

In sifting through their fecal matter, Lambert found both groups of rats trained to drive secreted higher levels of corticosterone and DHEA, hormones that control stress responses. Rats that were housed in a standard laboratory cage had problems learning the task of driving.

"We're interested in how they can use a vehicle as a tool to navigate the environment", Lambert said. The idea that honing a new skill gives a person satisfaction is well established, but the idea that it happens in rats is a new one, demonstrating the same kind of neuroplasticity that allows rats to respond to more hard challenges that humans have. Lambert told New Scientist she believes the tests could be made more complex and that the data gathered from observing the rats could potentially be used to help study the effects of Parkinson's disease and depression.


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