Check out this terrifying robo-rat: created to make other rats depressed

The rising armies are at our door.

The life of a lab rat seemed bleak enough, but it's only set to get tougher with the invention of a robotic rodent whose sole purpose is to harass its living counterpart.

Rats are regularly used to test drugs that tackle mental conditions, including depression. This means that scientists need a ready supply of depressed rats at their disposal in order to test drugs and see how well medication can alleviate their symptoms. The robo rat, or WR-3, is seemingly more than up to the task with its various creepy abilities, which include stalking, constant physical attacks on its victim, and attacks that are triggered whenever the live rat moves.

Bred and kept alive simply to serve as walking experiments for medical research - great for us, not so great for them - you might think a lab rat's existence is drab enough without the introduction of a mechanical bully, but scientists are hoping that the robo rat will shed some light on what triggers mental disorders.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that if a rat is constantly harassed by a robot when it is young and vulnerable, and then intermittently terrorised in adulthood then this is likely to make it very depressed.

It's possible to make a rat depressed by other means - forced swimming for long periods, constant running - but these methods aren't usually what induce depression in humans so the researchers wanted the rats to be gloomy based on the response to certain behaviours.

Quite what this means for medical research is hard to gauge - the researchers claim that the less a rat moves the more depressed it is. Of course, it could just be terrified of the strange metal thing that keeps bashing into it. But here's hoping some significant findings come out of all of this, otherwise we're left with a horde of traumatised rats and an army of violent robotic rodents, and little to show for it.

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron's starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the governmen dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up t o£250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it. and reduce the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.