February 13, 2013

How Do You Depress Rats? Introduce Them to the Robot Apocalypse, of Course


First, a disclaimer. I know that depression is not a laughing matter. Mental illness is a serious problem in our world today, and whether we are talking depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, suicidal ideation or any number of other conditions, it is a serious matter. On the other hand, some who suffer from the greatest sadness find humor in dark places. And, frankly, the idea of scientists trying to depress rats with an evil robot is a pretty funny one on its face. So, even though depression is no laughing matter, this is a pretty interesting story.

It is common practice for scientists to conduct medical research on animals, especially rats (where else did the term “lab rat” come from?). And often, these scientists are forced to introduce maladies into the test subjects. The question facing a group of Japanese researchers, then, was how to depress a group of lab rats. The answer, apparently, was to torment them with the threat of the robot apocalypse.

Seriously.

No one – rat, human or otherwise – likes being bullied. And when the bully in question does not get tired and relentlessly chases you around with the purpose of upsetting you as much as possible, well, that sounds a lot like a recurring nightmare I had after watching The Terminator and Mean Girls too many times in sequence.

Researchers at Waseda University in Japan realized that surgery and chemical treatments were not enough to mimic true depression, so they decided that a relentless, abusive robo-rat was the best option for driving the rats into a dark place. The robot follows the rats around, running into the poor creatures over and over. After dealing with this from youth through adulthood, the rats become listless and “naturally depressed,” meaning they are better candidates for anti-depression drugs. Other than this robo-abuse, researchers claim, the rats are treated fairly.

That is, other than inducing them with horrible, crippling depression. Perhaps a robot mouse from the future will come to liberate them, or The Brain really will take over the world and free his fellow lab rats. Or, perhaps the research will lead to an effective cure for the millions of humans who do suffer from major depression. You know what? I think I’ll take that last option. Those suffering from mental illness need all the help they can get.




Edited by Jamie Epstein



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