OK, But Can We Teach The Rats To Race?

A screengrab from a video of a test subject rat piloting an electric vehicle. (Screenshot: University of Richmond)

Scientists have previously run experiments teaching rats how to play hide-and-seek. Now researchers at the University of Richmond in Virginia have managed to teach 17 rats how to drive tiny electric cars around in pursuit of food, with the rats apparently loving it.

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. When the rats stood on the floors and touched their paws to the copper bars, the vehicles would move accordingly. The training was reinforced with rewards of Froot Loop cereal.

The researchers found that rats which lived in more enriching environments were better equipped to figure out how to steer the cars. Regardless of whether they lived in an enriched or non-enriched environment, the rats also showed lower levels of stress hormones and higher levels of hormones that counteract stress as they learned to drive. That indicates they may have been pleased with their progress.

“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),” said University of Virginia behavioural neuroscience professor Kelly Lambert via a school release. “That means the complex environment led to more behavioural flexibility and neuroplasticity.”

“When we measured hormones associated with stress (corticosterone) and resilience (DHEA) in their poop, we found that, regardless of the housing group, the training itself changed the hormones in a healthy trajectory (i.e., higher DHEA/CORT ratios),” Lambert added. “Therefore, we found that driving training led to more resilient stress hormone profiles.”

According to Lambert, the research also has applications for mental health psychiatric research, because rat brains are similar to human ones aaand did someone mention rat go-kart races? No? Am I the only one thinking about this?

Photo: University of Richmond

“We want to identify healthy coping strategies to minimise the negative impact of chronic stress,” Lambert concluded, not addressing the potential of having the cute, friendly rats race each other in their fantastic little vehicles.

Mind you, it would never cross an empathetic person’s mind to exploit such rat races for commercial gain: that would be wrong. But that doesn’t rule out the rats racing each other in some sort of fun, low-pressure way—if they wanted to, of course—and also possibly someone livestreaming it. You could even have little rat pit stops where the rats wear team hats. I’m just spitballing here.

The rats “learned to navigate the car in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward,” Lambert told New Scientist, adding that “If we use more realistic and challenging models, it may provide more meaningful data.”

Rat. Go-Kart. Races.

Lambert and the University of Richmond team’s research was published in Behavioural Brain Research. In a different (arguably cooler) world, that same paper could have been published in Road Rats, a fan publication that I just thought of and have drawn concept art for.

ARTIST’S CONCEPT (Illustration: Tom McKay, Gizmodo)

Look, one of the helmets has cutouts for the rat’s little ears to go through!

Gizmodo has reached out to the researchers about whether they have explored competitive driving with the test subjects. We will update this story if and when they respond.

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