The results of a new study have found that learning to drive small cars helps rats feel less stressed. Scientists at the University of Richmond report successfully training the rodents to drive tiny cars and found that learning the task lowered their stress levels. The results of the study have been published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.
Researchers at the college trained six female rats and 11 male rats how to drive a “rodent operated vehicle.” The vehicle was constructed of a one-gallon plastic container, an aluminum plate, some copper wiring, and a set of wheels. To drive the car, a rat would sit on the aluminum plate and touch the copper wire to complete the circuit. After months of training, the rats learned how to make the vehicle move and how to change direction.
After the trials, researchers collected the rats’ feces to test for the stress hormone corticosterone and the anti-stress hormone dehydroepiandrosterone. They found that all of the rats had higher levels of dehydroepiandrosterone. The rats were not required to take a driving test at the end of the study.
Study lead Dr. Kelly Lambert said the results showed the rats felt more relaxed during the task, a finding that could help with the development of non-pharmaceutical treatments for mental illness. Lambert said, “We want to identify healthy coping strategies to minimize the negative impact of chronic stress.” According to the scientists, rat brains serve as an appropriate model for the human brain because they share the same areas and neurochemicals.
The scientists also found differences between rats that were housed in an “enriched environment,” meaning they had objects to interact with, and rats that were housed in a standard laboratory cage. The rats raised in “enriched environments” were significantly better drivers than the lab rats. All of the rats, regardless of their living conditions, showed better mental health and more resiliency from the training.