Rats in the University of Richmond study

A new study is putting new meaning to the term rat race.

Scientists at the University of Richmond and led by Dr. Kelly Lambert taught rats how to drive in order to study neuroplasticity, (the brain’s ability to change over time). The results could have implications for treating human mental health.

Here’s how it worked, as CNN reported Wednesday:

Two groups of rats were trained on how to drive a small “rat-operated vehicle” (ROV), with one group getting raised in an “enriched environment” that included stimulus like ladders and toys, and the other group raised in a standard lab.

The researchers found that the rats raised in the more exciting environment “were more adept at operating and steering the ROV, thanks to the neuroplasticity (their brains’ ability to change over time) triggered by their environment,” CNN reported.

Lambert told the outlet that the rats raised in the standard lab “failed their driving test.”

ABC7 reported that the ROVs were made from a gallon-sized plastic food container that included an aluminum floor with three copper bars for steering right, left and center. The rats were rewarded for hitting their driving targets with bits of Froot Loops cereal.

But perhaps an even more notable result from the study than rats learning how to drive was the effect that the new skill had on the rodents’ hormone levels.

The research team found that the rats’ stress actually decreased after learning how to drive the ROVs — which Lambert credited to a new sense of control for the animals.

“It is likely that driving gives the rats a sense of control over their environment,” Lambert told CNN.

Higher than normal levels of the hormones corticosterone and DHEA were found in the rats’ feces, suggesting that not only were the rats stimulated, but were releasing hormones to help cancel out the stressful feelings.

Rat driving an ROV

“In humans, we would say that it enhances a sense of agency or self-efficacy,” Lambert added, explaining that the study helps give insight into “behaviorceuticals,” which CNN described as “activities that release hormones that can ward off prolonged stress brought on by corticosterone.”

Lambert told the outlet that if physicians can identify behaviors that increase humans’ emotional resilience — and thereby reducing stress — it could help treat illnesses like depression, CNN reported.

“Anything that reduces stress can build resilience against the onset of mental illness,” Lambert said.

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