The team gradually placed the Fruit Loops further and further away, encouraging the rats to fine-tune their driving.
Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the Virginia institute, taught rodents how to drive.
11 male rats and six females were used in the experiment, and when rewarded with Froot Loops, they were able to develop the cognitive skills needed to drive the makeshift auto.
The vehicles used were not as high-end as many electric vehicles (EVs) designed for humans - made from clear plastic food containers, their structure allowed rats to grip copper bars, completing an electrical circuit and driving the auto forwards. They did so by manipulating a "steering wheel" made of three copper bars that allowed for movement in the forward, right, and left directions.
If the thought of rats scurrying around the ground sends shivers down your spine, then you may be alarmed to find out that they can now drive.
Once the rat stood in place and gripped the wire, the circuit was completed and the auto began to move in the selected direction.
First, rats who lived in a more stimulating environment were better drivers.
The the complex cognitive, motor and behavior functions in the rats that was demonstrated in the study can allow researchers to learn about the neural basis of the hard functions, said Chandramouli Chandrasekaran, a professor of neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine. As scientists measured the levels of two hormones, corticosterone, a marker of stress and dehydroepiandrosterone, which counteracts stress, they noted that the ratio of dehydroepiandrosterone to corticosterone in the rats' faeces increased over the course of their driving training.
Lambert went on to say the rats seemed relaxed by the act of driving.
Lambert has apparently done previous work that found that rats experience a reduction in stress after they master hard tasks, like digging up buried food, suggesting they may experience the same kind of satisfaction people feel after perfecting a new skill.
"We're interested in how they can use a auto as a tool to navigate the environment", Lambert said. And more realistic, challenging tests for the rats could lead to a greater understanding of the "effects of Parkinson's disease on motor skills and spatial awareness, or the effects of depression on motivation", per New Scientist.
"I do believe that rats are smarter than most people perceive them to be, and that most animals are smarter in unique ways than we think", Lambert added.