Rats can drive tiny cars, and they find it relaxing, scientists say

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The project to teach rats to drive was led by Dr. Kelly Lambert, a Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of Richmond. Moving the auto forward usually led the rats to a sugar treat of Froot Loops.

Researchers at the University of Richmond in Virginia, US, have proved lab rats are able to drive around in tiny electric cars in order to pick up food.

The scientists at the University of Richmond's Lambert Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory said they trained two groups of rats to operate the "rat-operated vehicle", or ROV, which works by having the rats push down on a copper bar that propels the tiny auto forward.

They then managed to complete an electrical circuit in the vehicle, using the bars to steer them in different directions when required.

When the rats grasped the copper bars with their paws, it created an electrical current that powered the vehicle and moved it in different directions, depending on which bar the rats were holding on to.

A copper wire was threaded horizontally across the cab to form three bars: left, center and right.

The researchers found that learning to drive appeared to calm the rats.

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Some of the rats in the experiment had been raised in a lab, while others lived in "enriched environments" - that is, they had more natural habitats.

The rats were encouraged to advance their driving skills by placing the food rewards at increasingly distant points around the arena. They found that the rats learned to navigate the auto in unique ways and made use of steering patterns that they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward. That means the complex environment led to more behavioral flexibility and neuroplasticity, ' Lambert said.

DHEA acts as a sort of "buffer", Lambert said, when corticosterone becomes toxic - that is, when it can't be turned off in a reasonable amount of time, creating prolonged stress.

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.

"We're interested in how they can use a auto as a tool to navigate the environment", Lambert said.

The animals were first taught to drive forward intentionally, before eventually learning more complex manoeuvres. It could be a major help in research on depression and Parkinson's disease, for example.

But, just like many humans, they were not as comfortable being passengers.

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