Here's How Researchers Trained Lab Rats To Drive Tiny Cars

Turns out, rats will do just about anything for Fruit Loops. We have the video proof.

Published Jan. 9, 2022

 (Screengrab/University of Richmond)
Image courtesy of Screengrab/University of Richmond

To learn more about how environmental factors influence the cognitive abilities of humans, researchers have trained rodents to drive tiny cars.

It may sound far out, but rats have similar pathways and chemicals in their brains as do people, and these often serve as a “starting point” to learn more about how the human brain works. And one such video that has circulated the internet for the last several years shows that just like people do, lab rats can be taught how to drive tiny cars.

The video itself is not necessarily new. Research conducted by psychologist from the University of Richmond in 2019, then published in January 2020 in the peer-reviewed journal Behavioural Brain Research, first described the astute rats. At the time of its publication, media outlets like NPR, BBC and New Scientist shared the video and the findings that it embodied.

The driving rats resurfaced again in early January 2022 when the video was shared to the Reddit thread r/todayilearned. As of this writing, the video had since been removed but had received 2,700 upvotes beforehand.

The area of research focus is known as “experience-based neuroplasticity,” or how a person’s environment and interactions with the world around them can shape the brain and its neural networks.

“We love to study these animals, and we're always amazed at what they can do in the lab with their behavior, their cognitive flexibility, and their emotional resilience. The rodent behavior and their brains help us learn more about human behavior and brains,” explained study author Kelly Lambert, professor of behavioral neuroscience, in a news release at the time.

Lab rats used in the study live a somewhat bourgeoise life for a rodent. They have larger cages, more animals to interact with, and plenty of stimulus to create an enriched environment closer to those where they may naturally live. Studies show that these animals are more motivated and train more efficiently than those found in traditional laboratory settings.

“Training is a big part of their life, and we know even with humans that training can change the brain in really interesting ways. Just learning to juggle can increase the density or the area of certain areas of our brain's cortex,” said Lambert.

Cue the rodent operated vehicle (ROV). Rats were taught to drive their pint-sized vehicles “in a forward direction, as well as steer in more complex navigational pattern.” When compared to other rats, those housed in enriched environments demonstrated more robust learning in their performance and a heightened interest even after the trials ended.

Drive training began when lab-grown rats were about five months old. Behavioural Brain Research

The ROV was made up from a modified ELEGOO EL-KIT-012UNO Project Smart Robot Car Kit V 3.0 (you can buy one here) designed so that the rad could move the car by touching or grabbing a bar. Movement could be stopped simply by releasing contact. stop movement by releasing contact. The rats were trained to touch the bars and move the car with the incentive of tiny pieces of Fruit Loops cereal, which were eventually placed at the end of the driving range. As training progressed, the distance to the tiny marshmallow treats increased with the longest distance travelled by a rat being 110 centimeters after about a month of training.  

“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 Lambert.

Following the study, researchers analyzed rat poop and found ratios of dehydroepiandrosterone and corticosterone, two types of stress hormones, that suggested driving training created a sort of emotional resilience in rats that lived both enriched and normal housing.

Though rats driving cars are adorable, the scientists note that their findings could inform future strategies for addressing mental health and helping to understand various illnesses. Neuroplasticity and the ability to learn new skills could have indications for anxiety, depression, emotional resilience and cognitive ability. This type of training can change a brain and learning to “juggle” multiple tasks can increase areas prone to certain conditions.

It appears the study above was just the beginning. In 2021, the team unveiled the “Rat Car II” which featured new equipment with less than 1,000 horse power, advance control for tiny rat hands, and — once again — motivation in the form of fruit loops.

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“Scientists Have Trained Rats to Drive Tiny Cars to Collect Food.” New Scientist, Accessed 7 Jan. 2022.

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Madison Dapcevich is a freelance contributor for Snopes.