Researchers have taught rats how to drive. Yes – you read that correctly. In a study published in Behavioural Brain Research, the authors investigated how environment can affect the ability of rat brains to adapt to complex new tasks, such as driving.
Why teach a rat how to drive?
Besides the potential “aww” factor of a tiny animal driving a tiny car, the research aimed to establish the importance of environment in neuroplasticity.
“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. 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,” says Kelly Lambert, professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond, who led the study.
The study also explored how mastering a complex task might influence the stress response. “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.” Lambert continues.
Driver’s ed: Rat edition
Credit: YouTube/University of Richmond
The research team built a small car for the rats out of a clear plastic food container on wheels, with an aluminum floor and three copper bars functioning as a steering wheel. A total of 17 rats were trained to drive in rectangular arenas. Rats that successfully "passed" their “driving test” were rewarded with Froot Loops.
From this experiment, the researchers discovered that rats’ brains are more flexible than previously thought. “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 authors attributed this flexibility to the complexity of the environment surrounding the rats. “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.”
Throughout the study, the researchers also monitored the rats for levels of stress-related hormones, such as corticosterone. Those rats who participated in driving training had healthier levels of these hormones than they had prior to learning to drive.
“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); therefore, we found that driving training led to more resilient stress hormone profiles.” Lambert explains.
The team is now planning follow-up experiments to understand the mechanisms behind the neuroplasticity that accompanies the driving training. They also aim to explore how learning new skills could help to build a sense of control over the animal’s environment and ultimately, how this may relieve stress. As many mental illnesses can be exacerbated by stress, the results could provide insight into how we can buffer against their onset.
Crawford et al. (2019) Enriched Environment Exposure Accelerates Rodent Driving Skills. Behavioural Brain Research. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2019.112309