Researchers at the University of Richmond report that driving an electric car makes lab rats happy. Being driven around in autonomous vehicles makes them apprehensive. The lesson for humanity is clear, is it not? Drive an electric car and be happy! The research findings have been published in the journal Behavioral Brain Research.
According to New Scientist, the researchers constructed a tiny car out of a clear plastic food container. They gave it wheels, an aluminum floor, and three copper bars that acted as a steering wheel. When a rat stood on the aluminum floor and gripped the copper bars with their paws, it completed an electrical circuit that propelled the car forward. Touching the left, center, or right bar steered the car in different directions. Six female and 11 male rats were trained to drive the car in rectangular areas that measured up to 4 square meters and rewarded with Froot Loops cereal pieces when they drove the car forward.
The team encouraged the rats to advance their driving skills by placing the food rewards at increasingly distant points around the arena. “They learned to navigate the car in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward,” says head researcher Kelly Lambert.
Being A Lab Researcher Ain’t For Sissies
Just how do researchers determine whether rats are happy? By analyzing chemicals in their feces, of course. Here’s more from New Scientist.
“Learning to drive seemed to relax the rats. The researchers assessed this by measuring levels of two hormones: corticosterone, a marker of stress, and dehydroepiandrosterone, which counteracts stress. The ratio of dehydroepiandrosterone to corticosterone in the rats’ feces increased over the course of their driving training. The researchers found that rats who drove themselves had higher dehydroepiandrosterone levels and were less stressed than rats that were driven around as passengers in remote controlled cars.”
Lambert has shown in previous research studies that rats become less stressed after they master difficult tasks like digging up buried food, suggesting they may get the same kind of satisfaction as people do when they acquire a new skill. “In humans, we call this self-efficacy or agency. I do believe that rats are smarter than most people perceive them to be, and that most animals are smarter in unique ways than we think,” she says.
Her team is designing new experiments to see how rats learn to drive, why it seems to reduce stress, and which brain areas are involved. Maybe driving electric cars will reduce the incidence of road rage on public highways?
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