The fast and the furriest

One of this year’s most exciting pieces of automotive news didn’t come out of Detroit but from a science lab in Richmond. This spring, Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience, unveiled Rat Car II.

It’s the newest iteration of a research tool that she and her team in the Gottwald Center for the Sciences are using to study how rats learn complex tasks, which may better inform us about conditions in humans such as anxiety and depression.

“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)“ Lambert said. “That means the complex environment led to more behavioral flexibility and neuroplasticity.”

You read that right: “driving task.” The rats learn to operate the small vehicles so they can earn a reward — a tasty Froot Loop.

“It’s just fun to see a rat driving a car, but in the context of sharing that with someone or an audience or writing about it, I have an opportunity to talk about the impact of enriched environments, to talk about individual differences, to talk about sex differences, and learning the impact of training healthy brains throughout the lifespan,” Lambert said. “So it’s become a great springboard to talk about some of our laboratory research.”