Oh Good, Rats Apparently Have Imaginations

Good for them?
Fernando Trabanco Fotografía via Getty Images

In today’s “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?”, rats apparently have imaginations.

Yep, that’s right. According to first-of-its-kind research conducted by Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Research Campus, rats can activate the brain’s representations of places (i.e. imagine) that are distant from where they are in the present.

In short, our furry friends can think of somewhere else, while being where they are.

First author Chongxi Lai explains why this is something of a breakthrough, saying, “This is a fundamental building block of a specific type of imagination, one that enables us to project ourselves into the past or future, within a certain scenario.”

But, how?

In our brains, we have something called the hippocampus, a complex brain structure that has a major role in learning and memory, and it is able to depict previously explored environments — kind of like a map. Think internal sat nav, but only for places you’ve been to or visited.

As humans, we can flexibly turn on this part of the brain at will. Think driving home, or finding your way to your office desk from the car park.

However, to find out whether or not rats can do the same, researchers created a brain-machine interface. Or, in simpler terms, surgically implanted electrodes into the rat’s brains. *shudders*

Next, the rats were placed on a treadmill ball inside a 360-degree immersive virtual reality arena, with an on-screen goal to run toward. When the rats reached their goal, they were rewarded with a treat. Then, they repeated the process.

Scientists recorded the activity within the hippocampus of their test subjects and used a computer system to translate these neural signals into specific locations within the virtual environment.

Is anyone else’s brain exploding right now?

But, the test wasn’t over just yet.

In a smart move, researchers switched off the VR, which meant the rats no longer had something visual to run to, but would have to think about how to navigate the VR environment if they were to receive a reward.

By analysing in real-time, the team of scientists could determine whether or not there was activity in the hippocampus, revealing the rats could navigate to the goal using just their noggins.

Which means *drumroll* rats have imaginations.

All that’s left to question, is… what else could a rat imagine?