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Can Rats Feel Hopelessness?

Animal research has always been a part of modern American psychology, especially that done with rats. But historically psychologists haven’t sliced and diced their brains as much as other researchers have. Earlier this week, USA Today discussed a study that purportedly shed light on hopelessness. In rats. After reading the article, however, I’m not so certain what we — or the researchers — really learned.

Essentially, the study — published online by the journal Science — suggests that hopelessness is just a short-circuit of a healthy process in the [rat] brain.

“People may have genes, or life events, or other factors behind the short-circuit, but it may all be tied to a common mechanism,” Deisseroth says. Analysis suggests that antidepressants may help new brain cells grow in the hippocampus, allowing the circuit to connect, the study concludes.

Here’s something rat researchers nearly always do with their studies, which is annoying and really stretching — taking the findings they just found in rats and already generalizing them to humans. While the two brains have similarities, they are not analogous and rat researchers know this.

Note also that today: (a) we can’t slice human brains to determine if the same mechanisms exist after death in depressed individuals and (b) there exists no human imaging technologies currently available to measure what these researchers measured in rat brains.

So where does this leave us? Well, even with absolutely zero research on human brains for this phenomenon, the researchers suggest:

For researchers looking for new drugs to treat depression that may be a key insight, he argues further. Researchers should just look for ways to fix the hippocampal circuit, rather than concentrating on individual causes behind its disruption, if the team’s findings applies to people.

So with no further study, according to USA Today, this researcher is already arguing other investigators should be focusing on this area in the human brain. A little bit of a leap there.

While I think this kind of research is interesting in an academic sort of way, what value does it have for the average person? Is it deserving of a 619-word article in USA Today when there’s so much other interesting psychological and brain research published each week? Research that provides people with far more real, actionable information they can take to their therapist, doctor, or look for coming down the line shortly in a new treatment option.

Not a new treatment, that, with another decade worth of research and new imaging techniques, may or may not ever happen.

Hopelessness in a rat is not the same as hopelessness in human beings. At least not until a researcher has found me a rat that can tell me what it’s like to live in poverty for 20 years and deal with our nation’s sad mental health system.

Can Rats Feel Hopelessness?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Can Rats Feel Hopelessness?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 11 Jul 2007)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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