The tiny car was created using a plastic food container, an aluminum floor, a battery-powered mobile 4-wheeled platform, and three copper wires that act as a steering wheel. (Image credit: University of Richmond)

 

Researchers from the University of Richmond are teaching rats how to drive a tiny vehicle in the hopes of gaining further insight into effective treatments for mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Professor of behavioral neuroscience Kelly Lambert explains, “We already knew that rodents could recognize objects, press bars, and find their way around mazes, but we wondered if rats could learn the more complex task of operating a moving vehicle.”

 

The researchers built a tiny car for the rats using a plastic food container with an aluminum floor mat, a battery-powered 4-wheeled mobile platform, and three copper wires that act as a steering wheel. The rats operated the car by standing on the floor mat and gripping one of the copper pipes, completing a circuit. The left, center, and right wires determined how the car is steered and moved forward. A total of 17 rats were trained to drive the vehicle in rectangular arenas, and those that passed drivers-ed were rewarded with Froot Loops placed at certain distances.

 

 

The researchers found that learning how to drive relaxed the rats, meaning they had healthier stress hormone profiles by measuring their corticosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone before and after the tests. They also found that rats who lived in environments with interesting objects to interact with were able to learn the driving test, while others housed in laboratory cages could not. The researchers plan to carry out further tests to understand how the rat’s brain changes when learning the driving skill.

 

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