Professor Kelly Lambert in her lab. She is wearing a white lab coat and blue gloves. One of the research rats is sitting on her shoulder.

University of Richmond professor Kelly Lambert is forging new ground in understanding how our experiences and environment can influence our brains' ability to adapt. In teaching rats to drive, she also is changing the world of mental health.

Lambert is fascinated by neuroplasticity, the study of how our brains change over time. In three decades of research, she has seen how our brains benefit when our bodies interact with our environment to achieve a goal — and how they suffer when they don't.

Our brains are so clever that we have created a world where we don’t have to interact with the environment as much to get the output that we want. That may ultimately have a negative impact.

—Kelly Lambert

Lambert works with the rats to further explore those insights. In her latest research, she and her team challenged the rats to drive small, plastic cars — a skill they learned readily.

Through measuring the hormones and chemical indicators in the rats’ brains, Lambert showed that the rats find both relaxation and satisfaction in their new skill. Those who learned to drive had significantly reduced stress compared to those who acted as passengers.

These findings are consistent with Lambert's previous studies, which found similarly reduced stress in rats after they exerted real effort to find food.

Lambert's research has significant implications for the mental health field. Through better understanding the brain's neuroplasticity and its reactions to stress, we may discover more effective treatments for depression and life-changing ways to reduce stress.

Dr. Kelly Lambert is a professor of behavioral neuroscience in the department of psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences and past president of the International Behavioral Neuroscience Society. Her research focuses on how experiences, lifestyles, and environments influence the brain's ability to adapt.

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