Skip to main content

Scientists Tickle Rats to Help Make Better Antidepressants

How could you be sad while tickle-fighting a rat?


Whether or not animals have a sense of humor has been investigated in many ways over the years, but one of the most adorable has to be in Jaak Panksepp and Jeffrey Burgdorf’s experiments in tickling rats. Now, their work in adorable rodent tickle fights is helping to craft new “laughing pill” antidepressants.

The experiments stretch all the way back to 1997, when Panksepp entered his laboratory at Bowling Green State University in Ohio to say to then-undergraduate Burgdorf, “Let’s go tickle some rats.” With a plan much too cute to resist, they proceeded to try to find a way to tell if their rats’ vocalizations while being poked in the belly could be verified as laughter.

Indeed, it turned out the rats had a sense of humor (which we already know from Splinter “making a funny” at the end of Ninja Turtles, but whatever), or at least they enjoyed being tickled. The researchers found that the sound the rats made during tickling was a 50 kilohertz chirping sound that the rats were only known to make during pleasurable experiences.

It was also the same sound that the rats made during playful roughhousing, so now you can feel free to imagine rats staging their own, scientist-free tickle fights, which is even more adorable. Also, like humans, the rats don’t want to feel as though they’re being bullied like when someone tickles you to the “I can’t breathe enough air to tell you I can’t breathe” point. When roughhousing with a larger rat, the smaller one’s chirps move out of the “pleasurable” range.

With the tickle-based knowledge that these sounds only happen when the rats are having fun, Burgdorf has continued his work in proving that the rats chirp happily when the pleasure centers of their brain are stimulated. Now, he and his colleagues are testing new antidepressant “laughing pills” to see if they can get the rats to laugh.

If it works, they’ll be able to move into human trials, and rat tickling will have made the world a happier place. Well, a happier place than it already was when people started tickling rats, because how can that not put a smile on your face?

(via New Scientist, image via Clair Graubner)

Meanwhile in related links

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow The Mary Sue:

Dan Van Winkle (he) is an editor and manager who has been working in digital media since 2013, first at now-defunct Geekosystem (RIP), and then at The Mary Sue starting in 2014, specializing in gaming, science, and technology. Outside of his professional experience, he has been active in video game modding and development as a hobby for many years. He lives in North Carolina with Lisa Brown (his wife) and Liz Lemon (their dog), both of whom are the best, and you will regret challenging him at Smash Bros.