When neuroscientist Kelly Lambert looks at her lab rats, she can’t help but envision them in a slow-motion ballet with a backing track of classical music behind them. As psychology chair and co-director of the Office of Undergraduate Research at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, she’s studied rodents for over 25 years. Now, she says, it’s high time scientists started looking at the much-maligned rat in profoundly new ways.
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With The Lab Rat Chronicles: A Neuroscientist Reveals Life Lessons from the Planet’s Most Successful Mammals, Lambert investigates how rats are useful tools to explore things like improved parenting, optimal mental health and more, but also as way to gauge where our modern antiseptic society might be headed. Here, she tells us what might be in store for the human brain.
Are you implementing anything you’ve learned from the rats into your life?
The connections that are drawn between effort and reward—just for 10 minutes a day—makes rats more resilient and persistent. We’ve been just amazed at the difference it can make.
Right now, I’ve got two teenagers, and it’s easy to get caught up in just the cognitive part [of child rearing], the grades and the studying. I’m definitely very interested in that, but I’m just as interested in their ability to understand work ethic, and that things happen because you work hard.
I hate this word “talent,” as if something drops from the sky and you don’t have to do anything to develop it. Whether it’s sports or cognitive abilities, everything takes a lot of work, and you can change your brain with that work. I’m not saying that we should all go back to being pioneers or something like that. But we still should have a little bit of nature and work and physical effort to remind our brains that we still have some control of the world around us.
In what ways are rats more reliable than humans as test subjects?
The rats don’t have a cover story. They don’t have an excuse like some of my students who say, “Well, I knew this information Dr. Lambert, but you didn’t ask it right.” Or “I can’t do multiple choice questions.” Or “I need to be in a room by myself.”
My research suggests we’re not a good judge of what we feel or even what we do day after day. We try to figure out what people want to hear, and we fool ourselves. With the rats we get raw behavior. Sometimes you might have a really fancy human study in an fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging] machine, or something that is very artificial, and that may not be as informative as a very well-controlled rat study.
What do you think the impact of your book means to the future of lab rats?
The book does have a lighthearted and quirky surface to it, but I do hope that the ultimate message is a little deeper. They are wonderful representative models of mammals because they have all the same brain areas and neural chemicals that we do, and that’s why we can explore these things like mental health.
But also, they’re so adaptive. There are so many species of rodents as compared to primates. Of the primates that still exist, about a third of them are in danger. Which suggests that they’re not able to take care of themselves. Meaning, if we don’t have this sanctuary to protect this particular primate, a lot of them won’t make it.
Rodents seem to figure out how to survive on their own. If the environment changes, if the food changes, if the climate changes, if reproductive opportunities change—they will take advantage of that. And I think there might be some lessons about mammalian adaptation that apply to all mammals including primates.
Since they’ve contributed so much to human understanding, shouldn’t there be a national monument dedicated to the lab rat?
That’s too funny. Rats have gotten this bad reputation that maybe they don’t deserve, because when you look at a biology like theirs that can survive and adapt, you just have to be impressed by these animals. They’re just not quitters. They keep going and going.