Ticklish Rats

Who enjoys a tickle—toddlers, babies, rats?!?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

We often link laughter to joy, humor, and happiness – emotions typically felt by humans. But do animals also gleefully giggle during play?

Scientists at Humboldt University in Berlin gave the question a tickle. A simple scribble of fingers in fur made rats emit an ultrasonic giggle! Using this joyous squeal as a measurement, researchers found that anxious rats emit less laughs. But rats in a good mood will chase around a tickling hand, begging for more.

Researchers identified the area of the brain that responded to these tickles: the somatosensory cortex. This brain area activates in response to touch. But stimulating this in untouched rats? Scientists could trigger a giggle without lifting a finger! Now we know this brain area is involved in the touch aspect of tickling. And the social aspect of joyfulness.

Looking at how the brain creates and maintains happiness could lead to promising depression therapies.

And hopefully, more rat-tickling! Goochy goochy goo!