Traditionally, rodents don’t operate motor vehicles. It’s mostly a human thing. That didn’t stop researchers at the University of Richmond, which made the world a better place with some truly excellent footage of rats driving cars this week.
News of the newly empowered rats was first broken by New Scientist on Tuesday. The research team put some clear plastic containers on wheels, devised a steering mechanism out of copper wires, and put 17 rats to the test in small, enclosed driving areas. The rats that hit the target were given Froot Loops as well-deserved treats.
Text really doesn’t do it justice, though. Check out this footage, courtesy of the University of Richmond.
That’s just outstanding. More than that, however, it could actually provide some pretty valuable insights into how rat (and, possibly by extension, human) brains process stress.
Richmond’s researchers tested the rats’ feces for two chemicals during the study: Stress-causing corticosterone and stress-relieving dehydroepiandrosterone. The ratio of good stuff to bad stuff in the fecal tests increased in the rats who got to drive the car, while rats who simply rode along as passengers operated at less healthy levels.
In other words, rats who felt like they had more control over their environments produced less stress-inducing chemicals. On a broad level, one could connect the dots between that and the way the human brain works. The feeling of agency that comes with learning a new skill is generally a positive one.
Additionally, rats that were raised in environments where there were more things to interact with had an easier time passing the driving test than rats raised in normal cages. Their brains were better at adapting to the unique challenge.
Dr. Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Richmond, explained that rat studies are good for understanding human brains because they essentially work with a smaller version of what we’ve got. All in all, it sounds like it was a positive experience for the researchers.
“My students have been so interested in using some of our old fashioned behavioral principles to train the rats, and we’re interested in how they can use the car as a tool to navigate the environment,” Lambert said. “It’s been such a good learning opportunity.”