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Why Were Rats Taught to Drive

rat in a small car

We’re all familiar with the rat race, right? For most folks that include the daily grind and being in the car at rush hour twice a day! The regular commute has often been known to raise stress levels in drivers making their way to their various destinations. Unlike what happens to human drivers during rush hour, scientists at the University of Richmond have been teaching rats how to drive special tiny cars to see how their stress gets lowered! That’s right, teaching rats…to drive…to lower stress. Say what? Why were rats taught to drive? 

This is a totally cute visual, but a pretty awesome research project as well. These researchers wanted to study how the environment plays a role in an animal’s ability to learn a unique and rewarding skill. So for starters, they had to make super cute (and branded) specialized tiny cars. These cars move based on different places the rat touches sensors in the little rat-mobile. Pretty awesome already, but wait, there’s a lot more! 

These little drivers were taught to drive and the final destination for each road trip would include being rewarded with some delicious froot loop cereal. Yum! Turns out, rats raised in enriched environments like the ones that closely resemble their natural habitats were much better at learning and remembering how to cruise around to get treats better than rats raised in normal lab conditions. The rats from enriched environments were motivated to succeed more than the group that just got treats, guess you can say they just had the…drive!

Scientists determined that it’s both the enriched environment and the new learned unique motor skills that were associated with decreased stress in the rats. Both, enriched environments and learning a new skill, on their own have been demonstrated to reduce stress in animals, but this group showed that both of those factors together also have a very strong effect! This animal model established here can be used by researchers all over the world to investigate the subtle ways training and environmental enrichment can impact a person’s way of life! Beyond that, this study could also have applications for lowering stress in people combating anxiety, depression, and/or neurodegenerative diseases.

Learning to drive lowered stress in rats, so now scientists can move on to studying their stress levels when rats apply for car insurance.