What just happened? We’ve seen a rat with remarkable culinary skills in Ratatouille, but scientists from the University of Richmond have managed to teach the species an equally useful skill in real life: the art of driving a tiny car.
A team of researchers from the University of Richmond in Virginia, conducted a study in order to determine the cognitive capability of rats, reports NewScientist. While typically known for the ability to recognize objects and work their way around mazes, the research found that rats were not only able to perform the complex task of driving a tiny car but also felt more relaxed when doing so.
Kelly Lambert and her colleagues fashioned the car out of transparent plastic food containers with an aluminium floor, three copper bars and motorized wheels underneath. When a rat was placed inside, it stood on the aluminium floor and completed an electrical circuit when its hands touched the copper bars for steering the car as it propelled forwards.
The rat race included a total of 17 rodents, of which 11 were male and 6 female. Trained to drive in rectangular arenas of up to 4 square meters, the rats navigated their way to a sweet reward of Froot Loops cereal, bits of which were placed 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,” said Lambert.
The researchers also claim that learning to drive lowered the rats’ stress levels and relaxed them, similar to the satisfaction which humans feel after acquiring a new skill. “In humans, we call this self-efficacy or agency.” she said.
To support their findings, the researchers studied the levels of two stress-related hormones found in the rats’ poop. During their training, an analysis of their excrement found an increase in the ratio of dehydroepiandrosterone (known to counteract stress) to corticosterone (indicator of stress). Interestingly, the stress level of these rats were also found to be lower than those who’d been driven around as passengers in remote-controlled cars.
“I do believe that rats are smarter than most people perceive them to be, and that most animals are smarter in unique ways than we think,” said Lambert. She also said that this research could benefit Neuropsychiatry by allowing a better understanding of diseases like Parkinson’s on an organism’s motor skills and spatial awareness.
Further experiments by her team would focus on how rats learn to drive, its relation with reducing stress and studying brain areas involved during the activity.