A team of USA scientists reports training a group of rats to drive tiny vehicles around in exchange for treats (Froot Loops cereal). One group of rats had been kept in more natural, engaging environments with lots for them to do (called "enriched environments"), and they performed better at the driving task than rats who had been kept in lab cages.
"The rat is an appropriate model for the human brain in many ways since it has all the same areas and neurochemicals as the human brain - just smaller, of course", said Kelly Lambert, professor of behavioral neuroscience at the university and a co-author of a paper about the research published October 16 in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.
The vehicle was created using a clear food container. "Although humans are more complex than rats, we look for "universal truths" about how brains interact with environments to maintain optimal mental health". The makeshift auto was equipped with a copper steering wheel and aluminum flooring to create electrical currents to push the card forward. The rats had to put their paws on the steering wheel so that an electric circuit could power the auto, which then moved in different directions. Froot Loops were given as a sugary treat to rats for operating the vehicle.
The team wanted to know how the rats' living conditions affected their ability to learn new skills, so they took two groups of rats from different environments and compared their performance. In order to get a better idea of what the rats were experiencing, the team collected feces samples after the trials and tested them for corticosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone content (hormones that cause or counter stress). "The researchers found that rats who drove themselves had higher dehydroepiandrosterone levels and were less stressed than rats that were driven around as passengers in remote controlled cars".
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What gave the rats incentive to actually drive in the right direction?
"There are no cures for many psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia or depression", Lambert said.
The complex cognitive, motor and behavioral functions in the rats that were demonstrated in the study could allow researchers to learn about the neural basis of the hard functions, said Chandramouli Chandrasekaran, a professor of neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine.
"We found that driving training led to more resilient stress hormone profiles", Lambert said.
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News of the newly empowered rats was first broken by New Scientist on Tuesday.
Writing in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, the researchers said the animals could indeed be taught to drive forward as well as steer in more complex navigational patterns.
Driving and learning a new skill could have also had a calming effect on the animals; after analyzing the rats' hormones following their drives, Lambert and her team noticed that they experienced less stress and anxiety than before.
The researchers think that the findings could help not only explain more about rat behavior, but also apply to human problems too.
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