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US researchers teach rats to drive
The research team fashioned a tiny car out of a clear plastic food container.

Finding may inform future mental health treatments 

Researchers at the University of Richmond, Virginia, have taught rats how to drive little plastic cars.

In the study, published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, rats were trained to drive in rectangular arenas. The rats who passed their test were rewarded with small pieces of cereal.

Researchers say their finding reveals rats’ brains are more flexible than previously thought, and could further inform scientists about treatment for mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioural neuroscience at the University of Richmond, said: “We already knew that rodents could recognize objects, press bars, and find their way around mazes, but we wondered if rats could learn the more complex task of operating a moving vehicle.

“They learned to navigate the car in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward.”

In the study, researchers fashioned a tiny car out of a clear plastic food container. The ‘car’ also had an aluminium floor and three copper bars for a steering wheel.

Researchers found that rats that took part in the study were more relaxed than they were before training. They assessed this by measuring the levels of two stress hormones in their blood - corticosterone, a marker of stress, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which counteracts stress.

The researchers noted the ratio of DHEA to corticosterone in the rats’ droppings increased throughout their training. Interestingly, the rats had even higher DHEA levels (healthy hormone change) than in a previous study, in which they were driven around as passengers in a remote-controlled car.

“We concluded that the rats that actually learned to drive had a greater sense of control over their environment that was accompanied by increased DHEA — something like a rodent version of what we refer to as self-efficacy or agency in humans," said Lambert.

The researchers also found that rats housed in enriched environments learned the driving task, but rats housed in standard laboratory cages experienced problems with the task (i.e. they failed their 'driving test'.

"That means the complex living environment led to more behavioural flexibility and neuroplasticity," Lambert said. “This reminds us that our brains are constantly changing in response to our environments — and that we’re accountable for maintaining our brains moment-to-moment."

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Celebrity chefs urge public to get baking to support Cats Protection fundraiser

News Story 1
 In support of Cats Protection's Pawsome Afternoon Tea fundraiser, Masterchef winner Tim Anderson and Great British Bake Off star Kim-Joy have shared biscuit recipes to help keen bakers raise money for needy cats across April.

The celebrity chefs are both cat owners and have said that they hope this fundraiser will help to raise awareness of cats in need and the importance of adopting a cat, rather than buying one.

This is the fourth year Cats Protection has run its Pawsome Afternoon Tea campaign, which encourages people to hold tea parties, bake sales and fundraising events to help raise money for the charity.

To view the recipes and other fundraising resources please visit the Cats Protection website. 

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News Shorts
BEVA offering free membership to vet students

The British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) is offering free membership to veterinary students. As part of a new initiative with the aim of encouraging more veterinary professionals into equine practice.

According to BEVA, less than one in ten veterinary students choose to work in equine practice. The association hopes that this initiative will provide insight into the field and the benefits of a career in equine medicine.

Benefits of membership include:
▪ access to a network of nearly 3,000 members
▪ special student rates to attend BEVA Congress
▪ online access to BEVA's Equine Veterinary Education (EVE) journal
▪ free access to the association's online learning platform
▪ free access to BEVA's practical veterinary apps
▪ exclusive discounts on a range of things from cinema tickets to grocery shopping.

BEVA will be releasing a series of short videos over the next few months from BEVA Council members, explaining what inspired them to work in equine practice.

Image (c) BEVA.