A driver’s license for rats?

Can you imagine a rat driving a tiny car? This is the unusual experiment that neuroscientist K.G Lambert decided to run with colleagues at the University of Richmond. While it may seem outlandish, this research aimed to demonstrate that rats have much greater neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt and learn new tasks) than previously thought.

While the behavioral tasks generally used to assess cognitive processes provide interesting information, they tend to be overly simple and do not reflect the animal’s real cognitive potential. This is why the scientists in the present study wanted to assess behaviors that allow for the observation of various responses. According to the authors: “The utilization of additional animal models of skilled goal-oriented responses is necessary to further elucidate the neurobiological correlates of skill mastery.”

Previous research has shown that an enriched environment can affect the learning performance of rodents on spatial tasks. Based on these findings, K.G. Lambert and her team decided to teach rats how to drive! They wanted to determine the influence of the environment on the acquisition of a complex skill. For the experiment, 5 young males were housed in an enriched environment for 4 months, while 6 other rodents of the same age were raised in traditional laboratory cages. The hypothesis was that rodents who lived in an enriched environment would acquire real driving skills compared to those housed in the conventional laboratory cages.

Driver training began at about 5 months. Of course, the experiment was conducted using a specially designed vehicle. A plastic container served as the driver compartment. The compartment was glued to a frame with 4 wheels. This tiny car was outfitted with an aluminum plate and 3 copper bars for the steering wheel. When the rat stood on the aluminum floor and touched the copper bars, it created an electric current that started the vehicle’s motor. The training (3 sessions/week for 2 months) took place in an arena containing a black and white checkerboard (stimulus) so the rats could see the target destination (in view of receiving a culinary reward). As the training progressed, the young drivers had to travel greater distances to collect the food, thus encouraging them to refine their driving skills. Once trained, the rats were able to control the course of their vehicle by grabbing the left, center, or right copper bar with their paws. The last week of training was followed by 3 more weeks of testing after which the rats passed their driver’s license test!

As expected, rodents that were housed in an enriched environment performed better than those housed in typical laboratory cages. For example, rats housed in the enriched environment took routes they had never used before to get to the culinary reward. According to the authors: “Those data suggest that we gain ‘experiential capital’ if we have challenging, dynamic lifestyles that transfer to learning acquisition.”

The rather conclusive driving test is just the beginning. The scientists would like to further explore the importance of enriched environments to prepare animals for more complex behavioral tasks in order to study the importance of motivation and satisfaction in performing complex tasks (the rats seemed “delighted” to drive in this experiment!) All of these observations may be useful to research on psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases.
Source: L.E.Crawford, L.E.Knouse, M.Kent, D.Vavra, O.Harding, , X.HuP.Li, C.Glory, K.G.Lambert “Enriched environment exposure accelerates rodent driving skills”, in Science Direct, Oct. 2019

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