They Taught Rats How To Drive

The Lambert Behavioural Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Richmond has trained rats to drive miniature motorised cars to reach food. They taught rats how to drive.

The videos are simultaneously unbelievable and hysterical. A rat climbs into a plastic container secured to a powered sled with wheels, and then it touches one of three wires to navigate the little vehicle towards a piece of Froot Loops cereal.

Here’s a video of the rats driving, which I can’t get enough of:

The project to teach rats to drive was led by Dr. Kelly Lambert, a Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of Richmond.

Here’s how the project was carried out, from New Scientist:

They constructed a tiny car out of a clear plastic food container on wheels, with an aluminium floor and three copper bars functioning as a steering wheel. When a rat stood on the aluminium floor and gripped the copper bars with their paws, they completed an electrical circuit that propelled the car forward. Touching the left, centre or right bar steered them in different directions.

Is it safe to be the joining connection in an electrical circuit? I guess for a lab rat that sort of comes with the territory. Imagine if our bodies were the keys to our cars. Anyway:

Six female and 11 male rats were trained to drive the car in rectangular arenas up to 4 square metres in size. This involved rewarding them with Froot Loop cereal pieces when they touched the steering bars and drove the car forward.

The rats were encouraged to advance their driving skills by placing the food rewards at increasingly distant points around the arena. “They learned to navigate the car in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward,” says Lambert.

The results actually led to some interesting takeaways for the project:

This finding echoes Lambert’s previous work showing that rats become less stressed after they master difficult tasks like digging up buried food. They may get the same kind of satisfaction as we get when we perfect a new skill, she says. “In humans, we call this self-efficacy or agency”.

In support of this idea, the team found that rats that drove themselves had lower dehydroepiandrosterone levels and were less stressed than rats that were driven around as passengers in remote-controlled cars.

The project will now further study exactly what part of the rat brain is activated by driving, and why exactly it reduces stress levels.

If you think back to the first time you were allowed to drive a car, all of those sensations you now share with a lab rat just trying to eat a Froot Loop.

That’s beautiful. Aren’t we all just rats trying to get to our next Froot Loop?

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