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Scientists discovered that rats could be capable of dreaming giant cheese platters or imagining ways to avoid traps, the Guardian reported.
A new study showed that the small mammals can, using their thoughts alone, navigate their way through spaces and areas they previously explored.
The research team explained that the brain’s hippocampus contains a type of mental model – or map – that depicts previously explored environments. In humans, certain neurons fire up in that region when an individual moves through previously visited places.
Humans are also capable of imagining moving through such places, so researchers sought to explore whether rodents can do the same.
In their experiments, they used a brain–machine interface with implanted electrodes in the rats’ noggins. The rats were then placed on a treadmill ball in a 360-degree virtual reality (VR) arena and were given an on-screen goal to reach.
As they moved, their virtual location was updated on the screen. Neural activity in the hippocampus was recorded and translated to specific locations in the VR environment.
The treadmill was later decoupled from the VR setup, which meant the animals could only reach their goals using their brain activity to move through the virtual environment.
The team said the findings showed evidence that the rodents could get to the goal just by using their brain activity.
In another experiment, the rats were stationary and tasked to direct an on-screen object to a specific goal using only brain activity. They were also successful in this endeavor, prompting co-author Tim Harris to quip that humans aren’t the only ones blessed with imagination.
“To this end, it is fair to say the rats do imagine,” he said.