Study reveals rats have an imagination

Rats are seen in a street of New York, United States on April 16, 2023. (Photo by Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

If you ever wondered if animals and humans have similarities, it turns out they do, according to new research. 

A team of scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research in Virginia, performed an experiment with rats to find out if they have imaginations by utilizing virtual reality to investigate the animals inner thoughts and to test their cognitive thinking. 

Researchers determined that rats, like humans, can think about places and objects that aren’t right in front of them, using their thoughts to imagine walking to a location or moving an object to a specific spot.

"To imagine is one of the remarkable things that humans can do. Now we have found that animals can do it too, and we found a way to study it," Albert Lee, formerly a Group Leader at Janelia and now an HHMI Investigator at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center," said in a statement. 

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The group shared that rats, like humans, can generate activity in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that recalls learning and memory. 

This study is part of a project that began nine years ago when the labs worked to develop a system to understand what animals are thinking using a "thought detector" to measure neural activity and summarize what it meant.

Researchers used a brain-machine interface (BMI) to produce a connection between the activity in the rodent’s hippocampus and virtual reality.

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According to the study, the BMI allows scientists to measure if a rat can activate cognitive activity to think about a location without physically being there to learn if the animal can "imagine" going to a specific place. 

One researcher noted in the report that even if a rat is in a fixed place, its spatial thoughts can go to a remote location. 

This story was reported from Washington, D.C.