New Netflix Show Features University of Richmond's Driving Rats

June 24, 2022

UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND — University of Richmond’s driving rats are no stranger to the national — and even international – spotlight. The latest showcase of their skills is being featured in a new Netflix series — “The Hidden Lives of Pets” — which was released this week on the streaming platform.

Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience Kelly Lambert, who leads this research, her undergraduate research students, and the rats appear in the “Intelligence” episode of the show.

Rat in carLambert and her research colleagues, including UR psychology professor Laura Knouse, first published their research focused on neurobiological effects observed in rats trained to drive in 2019. The research has been featured by more than 1,500 news outlets all over the world.

Oxford Scientific Films, which produced the docuseries, saw the coverage and contacted Lambert about including the research in their project. A crew came to campus to film last summer.

“The continued interest is exciting because it exposes more people to science and gives us the opportunity to talk about the importance of neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to change throughout our lives,” Lambert said. “The impressive driving performance of our rats provides evidence of their cognitive flexibility, which is important for adaptive intelligence.” 

An enhanced understanding of neuroplasticity in extended training programs has implications for treatments for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

“We’re especially interested in animal models for nonpharmacological treatment approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, a therapeutic approach that is effective for the treatment of depression symptoms,” Lambert said. “This fun project has become a great springboard to talk about some of our laboratory research.”

This research focused on how learning complex tasks affects the brain and how it has changed and evolved over the past three years. For example, the original car was a modified large plastic cereal container. Recently, Lambert collaborated with professor John McManus, a colleague at Randolph Macon College to incorporate his expertise in robotics to create a new car with new driving options.

The rats were first taught to drive in the forward direction for the reward of Froot Loops — their favorite treat — and have since been taught to turn left and right. The next steps include learning more about how the rats can use their acquired driving skills to navigate challenging driving courses, more of an off-road driving experience.

"Training is a big part of these driving rats’ lives, and we know, even with humans, that training to gain competency in challenging tasks can change the brain in really interesting ways,” Lambert said. “We are excited to continue this research and see what’s next.”