Rat drivers car
A rat, looking out for pedestrians before setting off... (Kelly Lambert/University of Richmond)
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What? Rats driving cars?

Yes, that’s right, 17 rats were taught how to drive miniature cars around a laboratory as part of research in to mental illness.

Boffins at the University of Richmond in the US have taught rats how to drive little cars around a laboratory. The results of their research show that they are much less stressed when they are driving. Well, I’d like to see them on the M25 at rush hour and see how less stressed they feel then!

The little vehicles (untaxed and MOT’d I might add), were built by Dr Lambert and her brainy colleagues by attaching a clear plastic jar to an aluminium plate which was then fitted on to a set of wheels.

A copper wire was fitted horizontally across the jar to form three bars, left, right and centre. The rats were taught to sit on an aluminium plate and touch the copper wire. With the circuit complete, the hairy rodents (that’s the rats, not the boffins), could then steer the car in the direction they wanted.

When I watched the video, I noted that the rats also failed to use seat belts, in blatant disregard of the law.

How were they trained?

The rats were trained for months and given cereal as a reward for driving well. Eventually, the rats learned how to make the ratmobile move and change direction. The findings were published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research reports the BBC.

Some of the rat drivers had been raised in a lab and others were from a more natural environment – does that mean in a sewer pipe? Anyway, the one’s from the sewer caused a stink when they turned out to be better drivers than the lab rats.

Rats driving cars
A rat enjoying himself in a sewer

Satisfaction

Research results revealed that after driving, the rats had lower levels of the stress hormone corticosterone. The boffins think that is linked to the satisfaction of having learned a new skill. It’s typical isn’t it? You just train rats how to drive a car, when all the cars in the world are going to be autonomous!

On a more serious note, Dr Lambert told the AFP news agency the findings could prove useful for future research into treatments for different psychiatric conditions.

But is rats driving cars actually old news? Years ago, there was a children’s TV show called Tales from the Riverbank which featured Hammy the Hamster and Roderick the Rat – and they used to drive speedboats. And, in Toad of Toad Hall, Mr Toad used to drive a car – whilst wearing a hat and a tweed suit. That’s more impressive in my opinion.

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