Remember Stuart Little driving his little car? Turns out there's more truth to it than fiction. Scientists have discovered that rats can, in fact, drive tiny cars to relax.
Researchers at the University of Richmond in Virginia, US, have discovered that rats can learn the drive minuscule vehicles, meaning that rats' brains are a lot more flexible than previously believed to be.
Rodents had previously been tested to exhibit intelligent behaviours such as recognising objects, pressing bars and finding their way through complex mazes to locate food. However, the new discovery could help scientists to understand the cognitive abilities of animals at a deeper level.
The study was headed by Kelly Lambert who decided to find out if rats could indeed learn sophisticated behaviours like driving. Kelly and her colleagues trained 11 male and six female rats to drive specially designed cars using plastic food containers on wheels. These were fitted with aluminum floors and three copper bars designed to act as a steering wheel.
When the driver rat stood on the aluminum floor and touch the bars, the electrical circuit was complete and the rat was able to push the vehicle forward to reach the treat. Once the rats learned how to navigate, they exhibited remarkable driving skills, even figuring out ever navigation routes and driving patterns to get to the treats more easily.
Published in the Behavioural Brain Research journal, the study found that learning to drive had a relaxing effect on the rats. The discovery could have further impact on the way scientists understand human brain functions such as how learning a new skill increases stress relief. It could also help scientists better understand the affect of stressful neurological and psychiatric conditions on mental health and abilities including cognition and performance. The discovery could aid in developing new non-pharmaceutical forms of treatment for mental illness.
The rats' feces was collected after their trials to test for the stress hormone corticosterone as well as dehydroepiandrosterone, which counters stress.
All rats that underwent training had higher levels dehydroepiandrosterone, indicating a more relaxed state, which could be linked to the satisfaction of gaining mastery over a new skill, referred to as "self-efficacy" or "agency" in humans.
What's more, rats that drove themselves showed higher levels of dehydroepiandrosterone as compared to those who were merely passengers when a human controlled the vehicle, meaning they were less stressed - something that will be familiar to nervous backseat drivers.
The discovery could greatly impact how psychiatrists and psychologists treat mental health disorders.
Here is a video of the tiny rats zooming around the lab in US inside little, plastic cars.
(With inputs from AFP)