Driving rats redux: New cars, new capabilities, and a Netflix appearance

July 19, 2022


For Kelly Lambert, professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond, an appearance on a new Netflix documentary isn’t about being in the spotlight.

“The reason I do it is outreach,” she said. “People probably aren't going to read the journal articles that I publish, but when people see a driving rat, I've got their attention. And I can feed them related science information before their attention span is diverted to something else.”

The professor and her students are featured in the premiere episode of The Hidden Lives of Pets, a new Netflix documentary series that explores the science behind how humans and animals interact. In the segment, students demonstrate how they taught the rats to drive small rodent operated vehicles (ROVs) for a planned rat race, following months of complex behavioral testing.

It takes months of training, and that is really where our students come in.
headshot of Kelly Lambert
Kelly Lambert

Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience

“Every time the rats press a lever that activates the car's driving mechanism, they get a Froot Loop,” Lambert said. “But it takes months of training to get them to that point, and that is really where our students come in, utilizing classic behavioral training techniques to shape the rats' driving skills.”

Today, the rats are doing more than driving. The cars have been updated with new models, featuring plastic levers instead of wires, and the rats are learning to steer with the new dashboard design. Instead of tugging on wires to get around, students are training the rats to press the lever in front to get the car to roll forward, and press a lever on the side to get the car to turn.

“We investigate many behavioral neuroscience research questions focused on neuroplasticity and healthy emotions. This summer, our students started a new area, looking at anticipation for positive events,” Lambert said. “So much research in my field is about negative emotions such as anxiety, conditioned fear, and stress. So we're trying to condition rats to look forward to positive events such as playful social interactions and highly desired food treats in a systematic way, to determine how positive experiences sculpt the brain."

Lambert says these studies have direct implications for the broader mental health crisis plaguing Americans today.

“What determines whether or not you see a glass as half empty or half full?” Lambert said. “You're looking at the same thing, so what is it about brains and people and histories and coping skills that brings you to that point? We're interested in the life events that bring a person to optimistic or pessimistic interpretations of the same situations. We will, after this training, expose the rats to an ambiguous cue, not a glass, but something that could go either way, and see if they interpret it as positive, an optimism bias.”

Showing off their skills for the Netflix program was a positive experience for the rats, Lambert said.

“This is something they look forward to,” she said. “When we walk in the lab, they're up there climbing around like, ‘Oh, we get to drive!’ or at least get a Froot Loop.”