Rats learn to drive; could help mental health treatment

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Kelly Lambert and her co-workers from the University of Richmond created a miniature auto from a food container, by adding wheels and copper bans. The team found that learning to drive allowed the rats to become calm.

"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. "Although humans are more complex than rats, we look for "universal truths" about how brains interact with environments to maintain optimal mental health".

The study involved six female and 11 male rats, who the researchers taught to pilot little cars with aluminium floors and three copper bars serving as a steering mechanisms. The rats had to put their paws on the steering wheel so that an electric circuit could power the vehicle, which then moved in different directions. The rats that hit the target were given Froot Loops as well-deserved treats. With repetition, they learned how to drive forward and steer in more complex patterns. The rat-poop results revealed increased dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) - the hormone that counteracts stress.

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Researchers at the University of Richmond report that driving an electric vehicle makes lab rats happy.

Researchers in Virginia said they trained rats to drive tiny cars and learned the activity was a means of stress relief for the rodents.

The driving rats held an interest in driving during the whole trial duration and exhibited more learning ability compared to less stimulated rats. Professor of behavioral neuroscience, who's the author of the study.

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The practical takeaway from all of this is that scientists could substitute driving tests like this one for more traditional maze tests to study things like the effects of Parkinson's disease on motor skills and spatial awareness. This supports the idea that it was the experience of taking agency or mastering a new skill that the rats enjoyed, not merely the experience of riding around in a novel vehicle.

"Beyond the adorableness, there's a real scientific value", he said, noting that the rats likely used various parts of their brains to drive toward their treats.

Continuous stress in humans can severely affect a person's immune, digestive and reproductive systems, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

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In the driving rats, the researchers found that the ratio of DHEA to CS increased, which the researchers said, "suggest [s] that driving training, regardless of housing group [enriched or lab cage], enhanced markers of emotional resilience".

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