These Rats Learned to Drive. Could It Help Humans’ Mental Health?

Researchers found that the rats were more relaxed as a result of driving, which could offer new insight into treating mental health in humans.

Researchers at the University of Richmond taught 17 lab rats to drive tiny cars and discovered they were less stressed as a result. 

The rats learned to drive small, plastic cars made out of food containers, and were given Froot Loops as a reward. Each car had an aluminum floor and three copper bars as a steering wheel. 

While a rat driving is a major accomplishment of its own, the research found that rats placed in an environment that is mentally stimulating were less stressed, and how that can translate to humans coping with mental illness. 

“This research study found that rats housed in a complex, enriched environment (i.e., environment with interesting objects to interact with) learned the driving task, but rats housed in standard laboratory cages had problems learning the task (i.e., they failed their driving test). That means the complex environment led to more behavioral flexibility and neuroplasticity,” said Dr. Kelly Lambert, professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond.

When examining the rats’ poop, scientists looked for two hormones associated with stress; corticosterone, a marker of stress, and DHEA, a buffer that counteracts stress. Regardless of the two different environments, researchers found that all the rats involved in the study had higher levels of DHEA, which suggests that learning to drive in general reduced stress. They also compared the driving test to another study, where rats were passengers in a remote-control car, and found that the driving rats were less stressed than the passenger rats.

“We concluded that the rats that actually learned to drive had a greater sense of control over their environment that was accompanied by increased DHEA — something like a rodent version of what we refer to as self-efficacy or agency in humans,” Lambert said.

The results of this study could offer new theories on treating people living with mental illness, since rat brains are the most appropriate model for human brains. 

“There's no cure for schizophrenia or depression. And we need to catch up, and I think we need to look at different animal models and different types of tasks and really respect that behavior can change our neurochemistry,” Lambert said. 

While humans are more complex than rats, the neurological responses to certain environments and activities is similar. 

“This reminds us that our brains are constantly changing in response to our environments — and that we’re accountable for maintaining our brains moment-to-moment,” Lambert said.