If you’ve ever driven to the grocery store to pick up some cereal, you might have more in common with rats than you previously thought.
According to New Scientist, Kelly Lambert and her colleagues at the University of Richmond recently discovered that the clever creatures can learn how to operate tiny cars when there are Froot Loops at the end of the ‘road.’
To build the car, they fitted a plastic food container with wheels, an aluminum floor, and a steering mechanism made from three copper bars. The rats could complete the electric circuit that powered the vehicle by standing on the aluminum floor and holding onto the bars, and they could steer by touching the left or right bars.
It’s a more complex task than the usual maze-related experiments we’re used to seeing, and the rats rose to the occasion admirably. The tests included 17 rats—six female and 11 male—who took turns driving the car in enclosures as large as about 43 square feet. The researchers varied the location of the Froot Loops so the rats would have to practice steering in order to reach their reward.
“They learned to navigate the car in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used,” Lambert told New Scientist.
The study not only proves that watching tiny animals drive tiny cars is adorable, it also suggests that learning to drive had an interesting therapeutic effect on the rats. Throughout the experiment, Lambert’s team measured two hormones in the rats’ feces: corticosterone, which indicates stress, and dehydroepiandrosterone, which relieves stress. As the rats became more skilled drivers, their dehydroepiandrosterone levels increased, and their corticosterone levels decreased. In other words, the rats relaxed once they mastered their task. Lambert has found the same pattern in other experiments that involve teaching rats new things; for example, learning how to dig up buried food also caused a decrease in corticosterone. The findings were published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.
It’s not all that different from what humans experience, which Lambert calls “self-efficacy or agency.” Mastering something new helps us feel like we can successfully take care of ourselves—maybe you even remember feeling pretty good when you learned how to drive a car.
Discovering that rats’ brains have such high neuroplasticity, or ability to adapt to new challenges, gives scientists an opportunity to devise more complex experiments that relate more closely to human cognitive conditions, like Parkinson’s disease or depression.
It also proves that rats are a lot cooler and smarter than we like to give them credit for. From collapsing their skeletons to chomping through brick walls, here are some other talents you didn’t know they had.
[h/t New Scientist]