Playful Behavior in Rats: Insights into the Brain Circuitry and Human Mood Disorders (28 July,2023)

Behavior In Rats

Rats, those adorable and mischievous creatures, have long fascinated scientists with their playful antics. Now, a groundbreaking study sheds light on the brain circuitry behind their playfulness, and its potential implications for human mood disorders. The research reveals that a specific area in rats’ brains, known as the periaqueductal gray (PAG), plays a central role in their playful behavior.

Unveiling the Playful Behavior In Rats: The Role of PAG

The study, published in Neuron, highlights the pivotal role of neurons in the PAG during various forms of play in rats. The researchers observed that these neurons become active when the rats engage in play, and by inhibiting their activity, the playful behavior of the rodents diminished significantly. This groundbreaking discovery challenges the misconception that play is merely a frivolous activity, instead emphasizing its importance in the neurobiology of rats.

Behavior in Rats
Rats are known for their playful behavior. By tickling rats and playing chase-the-hand with them, researchers zeroed in on a brain region that activates when rats play.

Playfulness and Animal Resilience

Playfulness has been linked to the development of resilience in animals. Scientists even propose that play enables optimal cognitive functioning, making animals more creative and interactive. Jeffrey Burgdorf, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, aims to delve deeper into the neuroscience of play to develop innovative therapies for mood disorders in humans.

Behavior In Rats

Tickling Rats for Science: Measuring Playfulness

In the study, the researchers tickled rats and engaged them in chase-the-hand games, carefully measuring their ultrasonic giggles, which indicate when the rats are having fun. This approach allowed them to determine when the rats were experiencing enjoyment, providing valuable data for their research.

Behavior In Rats

The PAG: More than Vocalizations

The PAG, located in the midbrain, connects the forebrain to the lower brainstem, governing numerous automatic functions and instinctual responses. The researchers suspected that the PAG plays a critical role in play behavior since it controls vocalizations. In fact, when a playmate stops laughing, it signals the end of play-fighting.

Behavior In Rats

The Fun Cells: Playfulness Unraveled

Recording activity from individual cells in the PAG during play and tickling sessions, the researchers identified specific cells responsible for the rats’ fun-loving nature. Interestingly, these cells were active during both chasing and tickling, leading the researchers to conclude that they are directly linked to playfulness.

Blocking the Fun: Unraveling the Circuit

To gain further insights, the team genetically modified the play-responsive cells, enabling them to switch off the cells using light. Remarkably, when the “fun” cells were blocked, the rats displayed reduced playfulness and became less ticklish, as evident from the absence of giggles.

Understanding Depression through Play

The implications of this study stretch beyond the realm of playful rats. Researchers believe that understanding the PAG’s circuitry could significantly improve their knowledge of depression in humans. Identifying the brain structures involved in play could help clinicians tailor treatments for individuals suffering from mood disorders, ultimately enhancing their well-being.

Behavior In Rats

The Larger Picture: Humans and Play

Curiously, the region in humans analogous to the PAG in rats is quite substantial. This suggests that play may play a crucial role in human behavior as well. With no other animal engaging in as many games as humans do, the link between playfulness and human neurobiology warrants further exploration.

Behavior In Rats

Future Research: Cross-Species Comparison

The research team plans to investigate the PAG in other animal species to understand potential variations across different creatures. This cross-species comparison may provide additional insights into why some animals display higher levels of playfulness than others, unlocking more mysteries of play behavior.



In conclusion, the study on playful behavior in rats and its link to the periaqueductal gray opens up exciting avenues for understanding the neurobiology of play in both animals and humans. This research has the potential to pave the way for innovative approaches in treating mood disorders and enhancing overall well-being. As we continue to uncover the complexities of play, we gain a deeper appreciation for its profound impact on our lives.


N. Gloveli et al. Play and tickling responses map to the lateral columns of the rat periaqueductal grayNeuron. Published online July 28, 2023. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2023.06.018. 





1 thought on “Playful Behavior in Rats: Insights into the Brain Circuitry and Human Mood Disorders (28 July,2023)”

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