Oct. 24 (UPI) -- Researchers in Virginia said they trained rats to drive tiny cars and learned the activity was a means of stress relief for the rodents.
The scientists at the University of Richmond's Lambert Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory said they trained two groups of rats to operate the "rat-operated vehicle," or ROV, which works by having the rats push down on a copper bar that propels the tiny car forward.
The rats were rewarded with Froot Loops cereal when they drove to the end of the enclosure.
Kelly Lambert, head of the laboratory and lead author of the story, said the group of rats raised in an "enriched" environment with toys and ladders were better able to drive than the group of rats raised in a plain lab cage. She said the rats with more activities had greater neuroplasticity -- the ability of their brains to grow and change over time -- due to having more stimulation.
Lambert said researchers analyzed the rats' droppings and found both groups of rodents had an increase in hormones that control stress responses. She said the task apparently increased the emotional resilience of the animals, and could have implications for humans.
"It is likely that driving gives the rats a sense of control over their environment," she said. "In humans, we would say that it enhances a sense of agency or self-efficacy."
Lambert said the study could have implications for how researchers approach depression and other mental illnesses in humans.
"Anything that reduces stress can build resilience against the onset of mental illness," she said.