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Rats trained to drive tiny cars find it relaxing, scientists report

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Sometimes life really can be a rat race.

Scientists have reported successfully training the rodents to drive tiny cars in exchange for tasty bits of Froot Loops cereal, and found that learning the task lowered their stress levels.

The study not only advances our understanding of how sophisticated rat brains are, but could one day help in developing new non-pharmaceutical forms of treatment for mental illness, senior author Kelly Lambert of the University of Richmond told AFP on Wednesday.

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Lambert said she had long been interested in neuroplasticity — how the brain changes in response to experience and challenges — and particularly wanted to explore how well rats that were housed in more natural settings (“enriched environments”) performed against those kept in labs.

She and colleagues modified a robot car kit by adding a clear plastic food container to form a driver compartment with an aluminum plate placed on the bottom.

A copper wire was threaded horizontally across the cab’s front to form three bars: left, center and right.

When a rat placed itself on the aluminum floor and touched the wire, the circuit was complete and the car moved in the direction selected.

Seventeen rats were trained over several months to drive around an arena 150 centimeters by 60 centimeters made of plexiglass, with the researchers establishing that the animals could indeed be taught to drive forward as well as steer in more complex navigational patterns.

As she had suspected, Lambert found that the animals kept in so-called “enriched environments” performed far better than their lab rat counterparts, but “it was actually quite shocking to me that they were so much better,” she said.

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The rats’ feces was collected after their trials to test for the stress hormone corticosterone as well as dehydroepiandrosterone, which counters stress.

All rats that underwent training had higher levels dehydroepiandrosterone, indicating a more relaxed state, which could be linked to the satisfaction of gaining mastery over a new skill, referred to as “self-efficacy” or “agency” in humans.

What’s more, rats that drove themselves showed higher levels of dehydroepiandrosterone as compared to those who were merely passengers when a human controlled the vehicle, meaning they were less stressed — something that will be familiar to nervous backseat drivers.

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The biggest takeaway for Lambert was the potential new avenues of treatment the work opened up for people suffering from mental health conditions.

“There’s no cure for schizophrenia or depression. We’re behind,” she said. “And we need to catch up and I think we need to look at different animal models and different types of tasks and really respect that behavior can change our neurochemistry.”

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2020 Election

Women are making Trump ‘melt down’ — or turn tail and run: columnist

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President Donald Trump doesn’t like being challenged by any media figures, even if they are conservative white males like Fox News’ Chris Wallace or The Bulwark’s Bill Kristol. But female reporters, in particular, seem to rattle Trump, as journalist Jack Shafer argues in an op-ed published in Politico this week.

Shafer describes a pattern, explaining, “It starts with a reporter, usually a female reporter, asking President Donald Trump hard, tenacious questions at a news conference. Trump’s jaw seizes up, rattled and dumbfounded by the questions that he can’t or won’t answer. He abruptly ends the presser by saying, ‘Thank you very much’ and stalking out of the room.”

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2020 Election

‘Silence is complicity’: GOP condemned for doing nothing as Trump openly touts sabotage of postal service

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"Donald Trump knows that if the people are heard in November, he and Republicans up and down the ballot will lose," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren. "This is what we're up against—and this is why we have to fight back with all we've got."

Voting rights advocates on Thursday took aim at Republicans in Congress for remaining silent in the face of President Donald Trump's open admission that he is blocking funding for the U.S. Postal Service with the express purpose of stopping an expansion of mail-in ballot access ahead of the November elections.

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Mitch McConnell continues to be haunted by this Confederate flag photo – but he says he has no regrets

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell explained the origins of an infamous photograph of himself standing in front of a Confederate flag.

The photo has circulated for years, and it's believed to have originated in the early 1990s at an event held at Big Spring Country Club by the Louisville-based John Hunt Morgan Camp 1342 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, reported the Courier-Journal.

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