Brown University neuroscientists published findings on Wednesday that show that you can convince rats that the boring stuff they're always looking at is actually new, exciting stuff.
"In a sense we were trying to 'write in' novelty and 'write in' familiarity," said Rebecca Burwell, a Brown University professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, and author of the paper.
Burwell and her team accomplished that with the bane of a rat's existence: an experimental maze. The rats were kept in their typical cages, then placed in the most boring maze of all time, one that only had two stalls, divided by a wall. Then they shone pictures onto the front of the stalls. First, they shone the same picture in both stalls: a silhouette of a bumble bee. After staring at that boring picture for a few minutes, the rats were put back in their cages.
When they were taken back to the maze, the rats found one of three things: One stall had the bumble bee and one had a picture of a corn stalk (yay), both had a picture of the corn stalk, or both had that same goddamn bumblebee picture.
Under normal circumstances, rats, just like humans, will spend more time looking at new stuff (the corn) than boring old stuff (the bumblebee). That's an important evolutionary adaptation that helps us spot differences in our surroundings (say, a knife in your living room), but on the other hand, it also gives us the capacity to get bored. So, if the rats showed little interest in the bumblebee picture, and more interest in the corn, they would be doing what you'd expect.
But in these experiments, Burwell's team played a trick on the rats' brains: they used implants to flicker different colors of lights in their skulls -- colors that are known to activate certain areas of the brain that they thought might be related to novelty and familiarity. Using lights in this way is called "optogenetics."
Under these bizarre mental discotheque conditions, the rats' behavior was completely different. Sometimes they stared at the bumblebee as if they'd never seen it before. Sometimes they looked at the brand new corn and turned away, as if it were familiar. (One could argue that corn just isn't that interesting, but remember, these rats don't have super exciting lives.)
Then, the researchers looked at their brains directly, and saw that certain brain cells were firing completely in tempo with the optogenetic lights. That indicates that the rats' sense of novelty was, indeed, being controlled by the lights.
The study may help scientists to understand more about these areas of the brain, and could have implications for understanding memory and dementia, among other things. Maybe discos.