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Lab Rats Learn To Drive Tiny Cars

Perhaps Mouse Hunt had it right all along, and rodents are smarter than us. Scientists at the University of Richmond have trained rats to drive tiny cars towards food, suggesting that rats are a lot smarter than we've been giving them credit for. Consider that next time you try to outsmart the rat that sneaks into your kitchen. 

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    Last Thursday, a study was published in the New Scientist detailing how a group of researchers at the University of Richmond in Virginia trained 17 rats to drive tiny cars. Aside from the novelty of seeing rats drive tiny rodent-sized cars around, this also proves that rats have brains that are more flexible than previously thought. 


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    The researchers built a tiny car made out of a clear plastic food container, with an aluminium floor and three copper bars acting as a steering wheel. When the rats stood on the floor and gripped the copper bars, they completed an electrical circuit that propelled the car forwards. Touching the right, center or left bars steered the car in that direction. 


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    In the beginning of the experiment, the rats were rewarded with Fruit Loops when they touched the steering bars and moved the car forwards. After they learnt how to do this, the Fruit Loops were then placed in the corners of the 43 square foot arenas. The rats had to learn new ways to steer the car to reach their reward and quickly mastered steering the car in complex ways. 


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    While this experiment was being undertaken, the researchers found that the rats became more relaxed once they had learnt to drive the cars. They were also considerably less stressed than when they were being driven around in human-controlled cars. 

    The ability of these rats to learn to drive cars demonstrates the neuroplasticity of their brains, which refers to their ability to respond flexibly to new challenges. Follow up tests are planned to delve deeper into the minds of rats when learning to drive, which could help the researchers better understand neuropsychiatric conditions in humans. 

    This good news for everyone, especially those of us who enjoy seeing rats drive around adorable, tiny cars. 


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