RICHMOND, Va. — Inside this lab, all that matters is brain matter.
“We're interested in neuroplasticity, how the brain changes throughout our lives,” said Dr. Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
Dr. Lambert studies brains for a living, and several years ago, she was presented with a question: can you teach a rat to drive?
Yes, a rat.
“In the beginning, I thought, ‘I'm not sure that I'm interested in that.’ I'm interested in natural behavior,” she said, adding with a laugh, “and I haven't seen rats out in the wild driving cars.”
Then, she started thinking about it.
“We drive cars. We've learned this skill and our ancestors weren't driving these cars,” Dr. Lambert said. “Once you start thinking about a rat driving a car, you can't not think about a rat driving a car.”
That is how a literal rat race came to life.
Full-grown rats, sitting inside tiny cars, are now trained to drive.
Why would a rat want to do that?
“The currency in our lab is Froot Loops cereal,” Dr. Lambert said.
With a treat waiting at the other end of the racetrack, several years ago, researchers began training the rats how to drive backwards and forwards using tiny pedals.
“It's a very gradual process,” she said. “You get in the car and you get a piece of a Froot Loop. You approach where the steering mechanism is and you get a Froot Loop.”
Now, they’ve added a twist: power steering.
“They're quite adaptive, smart animals,” Dr. Lambert said. “So, we start requiring more and more of these animals. So, eventually, they know ‘I have to get in the car, activate the driving mechanism and drive to the target and then I will get my Froot Loop.’”
University of Richmond senior Erin Burns works with the rats in the lab.
“I'm in here a few times a week at least,” Burns said. “I think what I like best about working with the rats is their individual temperaments.”
Besides the obvious —I mean, who doesn’t like watching a rat drive?— there’s a true scientific purpose behind getting these motors running.
“Rats are mammals like we're mammals and their brains are much smaller, but they have all the same parts in general that we have as humans,” Dr. Lambert said.
Studying how these rats learned to drive - and how it affects their brains - comes with real-world applications.
“It gives us an opportunity to see how that brain changes,” Dr. Lambert said. “There's strong evidence that when humans have a neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's Disease, if you have more connections and more complex brain, it provides a buffer.”
That buffer could help slow down the disease’s progression, thanks to potential new findings from these small drivers, as they accelerate into new territory.