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Scientists Taught Rats How to Drive Tiny Cars, Found It Reduces Rat Stress

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Scientists walked so rats could run up a gas bill on their tiny aluminum ROVs (rodent-operated vehicles). 

A study to be published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research looked at how a rat's environment influences its driving skills and found that rats who learned complex skills--like driving--exhibited higher emotional resilience overall. 

Amid the buzz of biotech and pharmacology research, we forget that people are doing the important work of teaching rats to drive cars. Rats for a long time have needed to drive cars, as was clear when one rat ate nearly $20,000 out of an ATM and died at the scene of the crime because it couldn't drive itself to the hospital. But now the tide is turning for these little race car Ratatouilles. 

This is how the study went down: When the rats turned five months, they began learning to drive. Instead of turning a wheel, they had to grab a bar to move the vehicle forward (and take their paws off to stop it). They were trained to enter the car voluntarily, and in the car, a Froot Loops cereal treat was presented in front of them. As the study went on, the cereal was pushed back, forcing them to move farther and make turns. 

The researchers dug into the rat's poop after the training and found that the ones who drove had higher metabolite ratios of hormones that are associated with enhanced emotional resilience. They also found that rats housed in enriched environments were more competent behind the wheel. No report on whether they were better defensive drivers, though. 

Jokes aside, these findings are important because, when trained motor skills are introduced into rat research, researchers can, as they put it in the study, "assess subtle alterations in motivation and behavioral response patterns that are relevant for translational research related to neurodegenerative disease and psychiatric illness."

Kelly Lambert,  a psychology professor involved with the study, told CNN that it's likely that driving gives rats a sense of control.

"In humans," Lambert said. "We would say that it enhances a sense of agency or self-efficacy."

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Ruby Anderson is a News Writer for Thriilist.