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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

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