Question Your World: Why Were Rats Taught to Drive?

Posted: November 20, 2019

We’re all familiar with the rat race, right? For most folks that includes the daily grind and driving in your car at rush hour twice a day! The regular commute has often been known to raise stress levels as drivers make their way to their various destinations. 

Scientists at the University of Richmond have been teaching rats how to drive special tiny cars and, unlike what happens to human drivers during rush hour, the rats’ stress level has gone down! 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 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 when the rat touches different 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 on each road trip included a reward of some delicious Froot Loops cereal. Yum! Turns out, rats raised in enriched environments like ones that closely resemble their natural habitats, were much better at learning and remembering how to cruise around to get treats than the 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 unique learned motor skill that were associated with the 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! The 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 by combating anxiety, depression, and/or neurodegenerative diseases.

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