Researchers at the University of Richmond have taught rats how to drive, and the results could offer huge benefits for humans.
Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience Kelly Lambert and her research colleagues trained 17 rats how to drive mini-cars made out of food containers and copper bars that the rats pressed to move forward.
As the rats learned to drive and passed their driver's education course, they were rewarded with Froot Loops cereal.
How do you teach a rat how to drive? Rule number one: The exercise must involve food. (Photo: University of Richmond)
Researchers then measured the rats' poop for two hormones that are markers of stress in the body. Results showed that rats who learned how to drive had a greater sense of control over their environment and healthier hormone levels.
Their work was published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.
The second part of the study observed the driving success of rats from enriched environments versus rats that lived in standard laboratory cages. The enriched environments included interesting toys and objects for the rats to interact with.
The results showed that rats in the enriched environment were far more successful in learning how to drive than those housed in a standard cage.
"This research study found that rats housed in a complex, enriched environment (i.e., environment with interesting objects to interact with) learned the driving task, but rats housed in standard laboratory cages had problems learning the task (i.e., they failed their driving test). That means the complex environment led to more behavioral flexibility and neuroplasticity," Lambert said in a university research highlight.
"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," Lambert told Keyris Manzanares of WRIC in Richmond. "Although humans are more complex than rats, we look for 'universal truths' about how brains interact with environments to maintain optimal mental health. In our lab, we focus on neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change throughout time in healthy ways; additionally, we investigate the negative impact of chronic stress and how it compromises mental health. We want to identify healthy coping strategies to minimize the negative impact of chronic stress."
This study shows how treatment for mental health illnesses could improve by helping human patients gain and maintain a sense of control over their environment through learning new skills.
The researchers now want to investigate how the rats' brains changed to accommodate learning the new skill, and how task mastery modified their stress and coping responses to new challenges.