Learning about fear with rats and Legos

Scientists learn about fear by scaring rats with Lego 'Robogator' Credit: Kim Lab

Scientists learn about fear by scaring rats with Lego 'Robogator' Credit: Kim Lab

As I wrote in my last post, fear can be a real problem for writers. So much so that there’s actually a book on how writers can overcome it, called The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes.

But fear isn’t all bad. It’s a crucial evolutionary response that keeps us away from danger, and scientists study it in various animals.

In a new study, scientists came up with an ingenious way to study fear in rats using ‘Robogator’, a Lego robot built to mimic a predator. They found that a brain region called the amygdala was responsible for whether the rats acted scared of the Robogator or not.

When rats attempted to get to a food pellet, the Robogator lunged, scaring them back to their nest: Check out the video here.

And here’s the same situation from the Robogator’s point-of-view.

Fear of the Robogator made the rats change their foraging behavior, and after their initial encounter they were more likely to grab food closer to them.

Interestingly, when the researchers made lesions in the rats’ amygdala to alter its activity, the rats were no longer scared of the Robogator.
You can see videos of the fearless rats with lesions in their amygdalae here.

Other rats were given chemicals that left them so scared that they didn’t even try to get the food.

I think those situations nicely illustrate how fear can be useful, but too much of it can be paralyzing. It’s a complicated system, and hopefully further studies using the Robogator could help scientists understand how rats process and regulate fear.

As for us writers, I’m sure none of us want lesions in our amygdalae. I guess we’ll just have to rely on other techniques to write with less fear and more confidence.

[Ars Technica Via Kim Lab]


About SandeepR

I’m a freelance science writer based in New York City. I can be contacted at gro.wsan@rpeednaS. You can also find me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram. Here are my clips, resume, portfolio and photos I’ve covered a variety of science and technology topics for outlets such as NationalGeographic.com, Popular Science, Wired.com, Nature News, The Verge, and Backchannel. I’m particularly interested in life sciences and technology and the intersection of the two. I’m also trying to cover more news related to India, particularly environmental issues and new advances in tech/research. I received a PhD in Microbiology & Immunology from Stanford University, and also studied Science Communication at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I’ve interned at a number of magazines and newspapers, and worked as a science writer for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for two years.
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