New Study Shows Rats Possess Power of Imagination Similar To Humans

by Staff Writer
November 7, 2023 at 10:05 AM UTC

Rats in VR? New study shows these clever rodents can think ahead, paving the way for futuristic brain-tech based on their imagination.

Clinical relevance: Don’t underestimate rats

  • A new study reveals that rats can imagine and navigate virtual environments using only their thoughts.
  • Researchers used a brain-machine interface to translate hippocampal activity into virtual movement.
  • The findings open potential avenues for neuroprosthetic developments that could aid cognitive and motor functions in humans.

Pizza Rat, a rodent made famous for his New York City subway slice heist, seemed like he was chasing some big-city dreams. But can rats really imagine a future? A recent study from the journal Science suggests that, much like humans, rats have the ability to imagine and predict future scenarios.

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Beyond the Maze

The journey into the minds of rats began at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus. Chongxi Lai, a graduate student at the time, was curious about the cognitive abilities of animals. His advisor, Tim Harris, directed him to Albert Lee’s lab, which was already investigating similar questions.

Their hypothesis was bold: humans might not be the only creatures capable of imaginative thought. To probe this idea, they crafted experiments to see if rats could consciously manipulate neural activity patterns that correspond to spatial awareness. Could the creatures use their mental faculties alone in a virtual reality (VR) setting to transport themselves to different physical scenarios without moving a whisker?

The focus of this exploration was the hippocampus, a brain region integral to memory and navigation. The hippocampus is home to place cells, which fire up when an individual is physically present in—or even just contemplating—a particular spot. This concept isn’t new. It earned the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The discovery of this phenomenon in rats provided strong evidence for similar navigational and memory processes in both humans and these animals.

Building on this concept, the team engineered a cutting-edge brain-machine interface (BMI). The device interpreted a rat’s hippocampal neural activity and converted it into movement within a VR environment. 

The researchers used the machine to put the rats through their paces in two virtual challenges they dubbed the “Jumper” and “Jedi” tasks. In the “Jumper” task, rats used their thoughts to navigate to a virtual destination, which the BMI system then mirrored as an avatar on screen. The “Jedi” task had the rats manipulate an object in the virtual space, guided solely by using The Force — their hippocampal powers.

Jedi Rats

The rats’ success in these tasks demonstrated their ability to control their hippocampal activity with surprising accuracy and adaptability. This capability is essential for recalling past experiences and envisioning future ones. As a result, the researchers concluded that this shared trait between rats and humans is indicative of a complex form of imagination.

“The stunning thing is how rats learn to think about that place, and no other place, for a very long period of time, based on our, perhaps naïve, notion of the attention span of a rat,” Harris reflected.

Lai, now a postdoctoral researcher and the study’s lead author, observed, “The rat can indeed activate the representation of places in the environment without going there. Even if his physical body is fixed, his spatial thoughts can go to a very remote location.”

The significance of this discovery extends well beyond the fact that rats might have a knack for gaming. It paves the way for advancements in human brain-machine interfaces. For example, the study’s insights could lead to the development of neuroprosthetic devices that aid or augment brain functions. This could potentially transform how people with mobility impairments interact with the world, granting them newfound autonomy and enhancing their lives.

So, while Pizza Rat’s antics may have captured our imagination, it’s his imagination that may actually lead to breakthroughs in human cognitive enhancement and rehabilitation.

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