Researchers have long known that rats have a very similar physiology to that of humans and thus make good test subjects for various cures and drugs meant to help the medical community better understand a condition and hopefully spark some advancements in the field.
But a recent study has shown that they’re much more similar to human beings than just that. In fact, Pixar might have been closer to reality than anyone ever thought when they made Ratatouille. It turns out that fictional rat Remy is not the only member of the species to dream about the things he wants to do and the places he wants to visit. Real life rats do that too.
Researchers at the University College London reveal that, during their tests, rats who were shown a treat that they were unable to physically reach, later dreamed about how they could reach it after falling asleep. Essentially their hopes and dreams of reaching the snack manifested in their sleep.
The process is not only similar to what the human brain does while we’re asleep, but it can also help better explain the phenomenon.
Hugo Spiers, lead researcher and neuroscientist from University College London (UCL), gave a statement explaining what exactly a rat’s brain does: “It’s like looking at a holiday brochure for Greece the day before you go – that night you might dream about the pictures”.
For their study, published in the journal eLife, Spiers and his team placed four (4) rats on a track that had a T-shaped structure with some food at the end of one of the arms. Access to the snacks was prevented with the aid of a transparent barrier that allowed the animals to see the tasty treats as well as the rout to them, but also kept them from getting to it.
After trying and failing to reach the food, the subjects were moved in a sleeping chamber for about an hour. The researchers then removed the transparent barrier and returned the rodents to the track.
What they noticed was that the rats quickly formed a map of the surrounding environment in their hippocampus while exploring the track and the T-shaped structure. The lead researcher explained that while the animals were asleep, the hippocampus areas in their brains replayed journey though this map, which in turn is believed to help strengthen their memories of the place.
Neurons known as “place cells” are responsible for storing memories about locations and forming mental maps. Monitoring rats in their sleep has revealed that these place cells linked to the arm with food still remained active even while the animals were asleep, while the cells linked to the empty arm were inactive while the animals were asleep.
When moved back into the maze, their cells light up in the exact same pattern as they did while the creatures were asleep.
But rats are more impressive that that. Spiers informs that while the frats are resting, their hippocampus areas also build bits and pieces of a future that’s yet to come.
And in a remarkable turn of events, he explains that because of the similarity between the rat hippocampus and the human hippocampus, this could very well explain why patients who have suffered damage to their hippocampus area have trouble imagining future event.
The team plans to conduct further research into how rats use sleep to think a problem through and figure out which approach is the most likely to get them to their desired destination. They want to establish a stronger link between the two processes.
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