A group of 17 rats have been taught how to drive little plastic cars by researchers at University of Richmond in the US, in exchange for froot loops.
The rats who are taught how to enter a custom “rat-operated vehicle” (ROV) constructed from a one-gallon plastic container turned on its side are trained in two groups; one group is raised in an “enriched environment” with toys, ladders, balls and pieces of wood designed to spark mental stimulation, and the other is reared in a standard, unexciting lab cage.
Once inside their car, the rat racers would stand on an aluminum plate and press on a copper bar that would trigger the wheels’ motor. They will hold down on the bar until they propelled their tiny car to the end of their enclosure, where they collected their reward: Froot Loops.
Study lead Dr Kelly Lambert said the rats felt more relaxed during the task, a finding that could help with the development of non-pharmaceutical treatments for mental illness. It was also gathered that the rats raised in “enriched environments” were significantly better drivers than the lab rats.
After the trials, researchers collected the rats’ faeces to test for the stress hormone corticosterone, as well as for dehydroepiandrosterone, an anti-stress hormone. All of the rats had higher levels of dehydroepiandrosterone, which the scientists believe could be linked to the satisfaction of having learned a new skill.
“There’s no cure for schizophrenia or depression, and we need to catch up,” she said.
“I think we need to look at different animal models and different types of tasks and really respect that behaviour can change our neurochemistry” Dr Lambert told AFP.