Unconventional Research: Tickling Rats Sheds Light on Brain Activity During Play


Every year, puppies wrestle in the Puppy Bowl. In a schoolyard, children begin a game of tag. Not just in mammals but also in many other animals, play has been seen and documented. But play is something that scientists don’t fully get, said Dr. Michael Brecht, a professor of systems neurobiology and brain computation at Humboldt University in Berlin.

He and his colleagues played with and tickled rats while observing the animals’ brain activity to understand more about the biology underlying this pervasive habit. In a study that was published on July 28 in the journal Neuron, the researchers discovered a region of the brain that is active both when rats play and when they are tickled. The study’s lead author was Brecht.

All animals engage in some form of play, according to Brecht, particularly when they are young. Studies have demonstrated that active play is frequently seen in birds, particularly intelligent birds like crows, as well as in some fish, frogs, and reptiles. 

There are a few universal characteristics that may be used to distinguish it from other kinds, such as rough-and-tumble fighting and games with intricate rules.

“First of all, it’s not appropriate to play with sick animals or people; stressed-out people and animals don’t play. And it is satisfying in and of itself,” Brecht added. “You do it for the fun of it,” as opposed to a task carried out as a transaction to receive a reward like a gift or a salary.

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Exploring Playful Minds

In humans, laughing is a common vocalization that occurs during play. “Both animals and humans, when they play, they can be very vocal,” he said. These vocalizations serve to bind the players together and keep the enjoyment level high. Rats make an ultrasonic squeaking sound that is too high-pitched for human ears to hear as laughter.

Rats laugh when they are tickled as well as when they play, according to earlier scientific investigations. 

In addition, while being tickled against one’s will is unpleasant (and occasionally even painful), tickling done in moderation is usually delightful for the recipient. In fact, rats like to be tickled, according to Brecht.

Ticklish rats are also lively and vice versa, he added, adding that “there’s a very clear relationship between ticklishness and playfulness in rats.”

Gaining a more detailed knowledge of how play functions in the brain might provide crucial insights into how we learn, develop, and respond to obstacles in life. According to Brecht, play behavior may have evolved in both humans and animals as a way to train the brain.

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Source: CNN

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