A group of rats have developed the ability to maneuver little vehicles around in search of food. How did this improbable situation occur? Actually, for a rather intriguing reason.
The vehicle-driving rats were employed by researchers from the University of Richmond in Virginia to demonstrate how an enriched environment can enhance cognitive function and aid develop the capacity to learn challenging activities. Additionally, they showed how stress levels can be reduced and the rats can relax when they have mastered a challenging ability.
According to Dr. Kelly Lambert, study author and professor of Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Richmond, “the findings that the animals housed in a complex environment had more efficient learning in the driving task confirms that the brain is a plastic organ that is to some extent molded by our experiences.”
“I remind my pupils that they are responsible for what they do with their brains on a daily basis throughout their lives — more demanding and enriching lifestyles result in more complicated neural networks.”
The rats were given control over a rodent operated vehicle (ROV), which was a plastic jar on wheels with electric propulsion. By tapping a copper bar, the rats could move the ROV forward or sideways. The results were published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research. It makes sense that a mouse would find this to be a somewhat challenging activity to learn, requiring a variety of cognitive, motor, and visuospatial abilities they wouldn’t typically combine. Nevertheless, after a little practice, they were able to move about a constrained space and get at their yummy prize—a super-sweet Froot Loop cereal.
Six of the examined rats—11 in total—were housed in typical lab cages, while the other five enjoyed the luxury of a “enhanced environment” that included various toys and closely mirrored their natural environment.
According to the theory, the animals in the enriched environment did better on the driving test, demonstrating that they learned a new complicated ability more effectively. Even without the food reward, the enhanced rats continued to show a keen interest in the car.
On the other hand, the lack of interest and general underperformance of the non-enriched rats in the driving exercise astonished the researchers.
Two substances, corticosterone, a stress marker, and dehydroepiandrosterone, a stress-controlling hormone, were also examined in the rats’ feces. As their training for driving progressed, dehydroepiandrosterone levels in all the rats’ excrement increased while corticosterone levels decreased. This demonstrated that after they acquired the challenging skill, all of the research animals, regardless of housing group, became less stressed.
We should exercise caution when drawing inferences from this study because it was obviously conducted on mice. The discovery may have some intriguing ramifications for how environments and animal minds interact, though.
It serves as a reminder that difficult activities can be used in preclinical animal research to discover more about the cognitive and challenging behavior of humans, Lambert continued. “We also note that the rats’ stress hormone profiles improved as a result of the driving instruction. We believe that this learning activity and using the ROV could serve as an animal model for self-efficacy or agency, two factors that are essential for mental health.