A bunch of rats have learned how to drive tiny vehicles around to pick up food. How did this unlikely scenario come around? Well, for a surprisingly interesting reason, actually.
Researchers from the University of Richmond in Virginia used the vehicle-driving rodents to show that an enriched environment can improve cognitive function and help sharpen the ability to learn complex tasks. They also demonstrated that the mastery of a complicated skill can reduce levels of stress and help the rodents chill out.
“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 molded by our experiences to some extent,” Dr Kelly Lambert, study author and professor of Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Richmond, told IFLScience.
“I tell my students that they are accountable for what they do with their brains every day of their lives – more challenging and enriching lifestyles lead to more complex neural networks.”
As reported in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, the rats were presented with a rodent operated vehicle (ROV) consisting of a plastic jar on electric-powered wheels that they could move forward or steer sideways by touching a copper bar. Understandably, this is a pretty complex task for a rodent to learn, requiring all manner of cognitive, motor, and visuospatial skills they wouldn’t usually employ together. Nevertheless, after some practice, they were able to successfully navigate around a narrow arena towards a tasty reward, a super sugary Froot Loop cereal.
Out of the 11 rats tested, six were housed in standard laboratory cages, while the remaining five were given the luxury of an “enriched environment,” which included different toys and closely resembled their natural habitat.
As hypothesized, the animals living in the enriched environment performed better at the driving test, indicating that they did a better job at learning a new complex skill. The enriched rats also maintained a strong interest in the car, even after the reward of food was removed.
On the other hand, the researchers were surprised at the lack of interest shown by the non-enriched rats and their level of underachievement shown in the driving task.
The rats' poop was also tested for levels of two hormones, corticosterone, which is a marker of stress, and dehydroepiandrosterone, which help control stress. All of the rats' feces showed increasing dehydroepiandrosterone and decreasing corticosterone as their driving training continued. This suggested that all of the animals in the study, regardless of housing group, become less stressed after they had mastered the complex skill.
Obviously, this study was carried out on rodents, so we should be careful not to jump to any conclusions. However, the study could hold some interesting implications when it comes to animals' environment and their mental state.
“It reminds us that we can use challenging tasks with preclinical animal work to learn more about human challenging behavior and cognitive systems,” Lambert added. “We also see that the rats had healthier stress hormone profiles with the driving training. We think this learning task and operating the ROV may be an animal model for agency or self-efficacy – two elements that are critical for mental health.”