University of Richmond, media release
Lab rats at the University of Richmond were trained to drive 'rat cars' to obtain treats and, as the treats got more difficult to obtain, the rats upped their skill levels to get them.
When the champion rat drivers were not driving, they spent their lives in "enriched" environments with interesting objects to interact with, but there was also a control group of rats who failed to learn to drive the cars; they lived in standard rat cages without much to stimulate them.
What took place in the brains of the driver rats is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is a well-known concept and has been demonstrated in hundreds of experiments since the mid-twentieth century. It proposes that the brain can continue to establish new pathways to learn new skills, create memories, and adapt to new information well beyond the formative years. What behavioral scientists Dr. Kelly Lambert and her team at the University of Richmond demonstrated is that rat brains are more elastic (new skills can be learned) when the rats are exposed to an enriched environment.
Furthermore, the driver rats really seemed to enjoy driving around in their rodent operated vehicles (ROVs), and this observation was endorsed by test results showing a reduction in stress after the experimental drives. These rats were having fun!
The implications of the research conducted by Dr. Kelly Lambert and her colleagues at the University of Richmond, are that neuroplastiticy can lead to new learning and new skills when environments are enriched. (See "Enriched Environment Exposure Accelerates Rodent Driving Skills.")
This study has hopeful implications for humans in therapeutic situations, the authors suggest, especially for those with brain impairments caused by stroke, Parkinson's disease, and even depression.