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Research scientists at U of R teach rats to drive; results may inform future mental health treatments

This research explores how performing complex tasks, like driving, may further inform the science community about treatment for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

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A team of researchers at the University of Richmond has taught rats to drive.

Kelly Lambert with a rat

Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience Kelly Lambert and her research colleagues have just published this research in the Behavioural Brain Research journal article “Enriched Environment Exposure Accelerates Rodent Driving Skills.”

This research explores how performing complex tasks, like driving, may further inform the science community about treatment for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

“We already knew that rodents could recognize objects, press bars, and find their way around mazes, but we wondered if rats could learn the more complex task of operating a moving vehicle,” Lambert said.

The research team built a tiny car for the rats out of a clear plastic food container on wheels, with an aluminum floor and three copper bars functioning as a steering wheel. A total of 17 rats were trained to drive in rectangular arenas. Rats who passed their driver’s education were rewarded with Froot Loops.

“They learned to navigate the car in unique ways and engaged in steering patterns they had never used to eventually arrive at the reward,” says Lambert.

Results from this study include the following:

  • Rats’ brains are more flexible than previously thought. This finding could be used to understand how learning new skills may build a sense of control over the animal’s environment that may ultimately reduce stress. Because so many psychiatric illnesses such as depression and various anxiety disorders are exacerbated by stress, anything that relieves stress may provide a buffer against the onset of mental illness.
  • In the published study, rats that participated in the driving training had healthier stress hormone profiles than they had prior to their training. The researchers assessed hormones by measuring levels of two hormones: corticosterone, a marker of stress, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which counteracts stress. The ratio of DHEA to corticosterone in the rats’ poop increased over the course of their driving training. In a previous study presented at the International Behavioral Neuroscience Society last summer, Lambert’s team compared driving rats to passenger (Uber) rats. They drove the Uber rats around in a remote control car for the same distances as the yoked driver rats so that the experiences were matched other than having control of the “wheel.” In this study, the driving rats had higher DHEA levels (healthy hormone change) than the Uber rats. “We concluded that the rats that actually learned to drive had a greater sense of control over their environment that was accompanied by increased DHEA — something like a rodent version of what we refer to as self-efficacy or agency in humans,” Lambert said.
  • Rats housed in a complex, enriched environment (i.e., environment with interesting objects to interact with) learned the driving task, but rats housed in standard laboratory cages had problems learning the task (i.e., they failed their driving test).” That means the complex living environment led to more behavioral flexibility and neuroplasticity,” Lambert said. “This reminds us that our brains are constantly changing in response to our environments — and that we’re accountable for maintaining our brains moment-to-moment.”

The research team included fellow psychology professor Laura Knouse, and Apple data scientist Beth Crawford, a former psychology faculty member at UR. Alum Olivia Harding, now a research lab assistant at UR, is also assisting with this research, which she began working on as an undergraduate. Additionally, several undergraduate students were co-authors on the published manuscript and continue to work on the research program.

As for the next steps, the team is now planning follow-up experiments to understand how the brain changes to accommodate the acquired driving skills — that is, the neuroplasticity that accompanies the driving training. They will also continue to explore how task mastery — e.g., driving or mastering other complex tasks — modify the stress and coping response to new challenges.

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Elephant Insurance to give $300,000 to organizations impacted by COVID-19

Elephant Insurance announced that the company is launching a new initiative, known as the Helping Herd, that will donate $300,000 to organizations and programs that have been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic or who are providing COVID-19 relief to their community.

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Elephant Insurance announced that the company is launching a new initiative, known as the Helping Herd, that will donate $300,000 to organizations and programs that have been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic or who are providing COVID-19 relief to their community. The program will launch in June and gifts will be distributed between June and December 2021.

Through the Helping Herd, Elephant’s hope is to reach at least 50 organizations or programs with the funds, with gifts ranging in size from $2,000 to $20,000. Elephant team members will be involved in the selection process, either by nominating deserving groups or participating in the voting process to finalize the recipients.

The program was made possible by Elephant’s parent company, Admiral Group, which shares in Elephant’s mission of making a positive impact on local communities during challenging times.

“We know the Helping Herd initiative will be able to make a significant impact on individuals and communities that are hurting due to COVID-19, and Elephant is grateful to be in a position to step up and give back in this way,” said Alberto Schiavon, CEO. “The Elephant team – our herd – is eager to be a part of this important process, and we’re so appreciative of the support of Admiral Group to make this possible.”

To be considered to receive funds, applicants must serve the community in at least one of three areas: mental health, physical health, or community health. Interested organizations or programs will be able to apply to receive funds at https://www.elephant.com/contact/helping-herd-submission, where more details on eligibility are available.  Applications will be accepted through August 1, 2021.

In addition to the submission form, nominations will be collected from Elephant employees by survey.  A large portion of the funds are anticipated to be distributed in Virginia, where Elephant is headquartered, but Helping Herd funds will also go to organizations in other states where Elephant services are offered, including Texas.

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Henrico Schools’ Class of 2021 will celebrate with expanded access to in-person graduations

The revised directives will enable more family members and loved ones – a maximum of 8 – to attend the ceremonies, will give attendees the option to sit more closely, and won’t require masks.

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In accordance with updated pandemic directives from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Henrico County Public Schools is adjusting some plans for traditional in-person graduation ceremonies scheduled for June. Northam’s Executive Order 79 brings Virginia’s policies in line with COVID-19 pandemic guidance issued May 13 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The revised directives will enable more family members and loved ones to attend the ceremonies, will give attendees the option to sit more closely, and won’t require masks — although the governor’s order strongly encourages vaccination, as well as mask-use for those who are unvaccinated or partly vaccinated. No matter their vaccination status, attendees may still choose to wear a mask and maintain physical distancing at the events.

To read the governor’s order, go to https://www.governor.virginia.gov/executive-actions/ and click “Executive Order 79.” A May 14 news release with more information is available at https://www.governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/news-releases/.

In April, HCPS announced plans for traditional graduation ceremonies at Richmond Raceway for the school division’s nine comprehensive high schools and two Advanced Career Education centers, as well as a June 9 ceremony for the Academy at Virginia Randolph, to be held at the Virginia Randolph Recreation Area.

In accordance with the new state directives:

  • Masks will not be required for those attending the graduation ceremonies. However, the governor’s directive strongly encourages those who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated to wear masks in all settings.
  • Each graduate will now be able to invite eight guests, instead of four. (Graduates will still receive only four printed tickets for admission to the ceremony, because the tickets were printed before the new guidelines were issued. However, each ticket will now admit two guests.)
  • Attendees will not be required to physically distance or sit together in “pods” of guests.

Each class at the Richmond Raceway events will engage in a processional, emerging from a gate beneath the grandstands, walking past friends and family in the grandstands and descending to a grassy seating area just across the track. As is traditional, students will ascend a stage and accept their diplomas. Professional-quality sound systems and video boards will also be in place to amplify the students’ processional, songs, speeches and the recognition of each graduate by name as they walk across the stage.

Because pandemic restrictions were eased earlier than the expected June 15 date, planning for the 10 Richmond Raceway ceremonies was well underway. To accommodate June temperatures at an outdoor venue:

  • The starting times of graduations are taking place slightly earlier in the day (compared to prior years) in order to avoid some of the hottest potential late afternoon heat.
  • HCPS high schools are planning to reduce the length of their ceremonies — which can typically last up to 100 minutes — to 70 minutes or less.
  • Graduating seniors will assemble in the shade beneath the grandstands before their ceremonies and will have ample access to water.
  • Guests may bring a factory-sealed bottle of water to the ceremonies.

Graduations will also be livestreamed at www.henricoschools.us, ensuring that relatives and loved ones can also watch from their computers and mobile devices. Graduations will also be recorded and will be available to view the week after the ceremonies by going to HCPS’ graduation hub at https://henricoschools.us/graduations/. Graduations will be replayed later in June on HCPS-TV (Comcast Channel 99 and FIOS channel 38). An HCPS-TV replay schedule will be available at the graduation hub webpage.

HCPS graduation schedule

Detailed information is being made available to graduates through their schools. At Richmond Raceway events, parking will open two hours before the program, and grandstand gates will open 90 minutes before each program.

Virginia Randolph Recreation Area

2175 Mountain Road, Glen Allen, Va. 23060

Wednesday, June 9

  • The Academy at Virginia Randolph (7 p.m.)

Richmond Raceway Complex

600 E. Laburnum Ave., Henrico, Va. 23222

Monday, June 14

  • Advanced Career Education Centers at Hermitage and Highland Springs (6 p.m.)

Tuesday, June 15

  • Henrico High School (10 a.m.)
  • Highland Springs High School (2 p.m.)
  • Varina High School (6 p.m.)

Wednesday, June 16

  • Douglas S. Freeman High School (10 a.m.)
  • Deep Run High School (2 p.m.)
  • Mills E. Godwin High School (6 p.m.)

Thursday, June 17

  • J.R. Tucker High School (10 a.m.)
  • Glen Allen High School (2 p.m.)
  • Hermitage High School 6 p.m.)

Friday, June 18: Rain date

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Education

Ridge Elementary’s Erin Rettig named Virginia’s 2021 Elementary School Counselor of the Year

Rettig was surprised by Henrico County Public Schools leaders and members of her family at an April 30 announcement at Ridge. She will be recognized at the Virginia School Counselor Association’s annual conference in October.

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The Virginia School Counselor Association has named Erin Rettig, a school counselor at Ridge Elementary School, its Elementary School Counselor of the Year. Rettig was surprised by Henrico County Public Schools leaders and members of her family at an April 30 announcement at Ridge. She will be recognized at the Virginia School Counselor Association’s annual conference in October.

This is the second straight year the award has been presented to an HCPS school counselor. Last year Lila Hiltz of Donahoe Elementary School won the statewide honor.

“I love anything that brings attention to Ridge,” said Rettig. “It’s a very special school. It has a great school climate, it’s very inclusive. We have students from all different backgrounds and staff from different backgrounds … I love being at a school where all are welcome.

“I was very surprised … I really didn’t think about the nomination after it was submitted. I have always had the mentality that it’s students over everything — what’s best for them is the priority. So I really wasn’t doing anything different or trying to earn an award. I’m very thankful that they honored me and it really affirms the important work I’m doing at Ridge Elementary.”

Originally from Virginia Beach, Rettig joined the staff at Ridge in 2004 after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from James Madison University and a master’s degree in school counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University. In 2020, she earned certification in school counseling from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the profession’s highest mark of accomplishment.

The annual awards for elementary and secondary school counselor of the year are based on implementation of a comprehensive school counseling program and the American School Counselor Association’s guiding national model.

In naming her the commonwealth’s elementary school winner, the Virginia School Counseling Association said, “Your application and letters of recommendation clearly showed that you not only support the national standards for school counseling within [your school division], but also advocate for the profession throughout your community. Your dedication to your students and increasing efforts at collaboration with fellow educators are admired and appreciated!”

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