Rats May Join War on Drugs
Rodent Sense of Smell Used to Detect Drugs

June 20, 2002

Law enforcement agencies use drug-sniffing dogs to find illegal drugs such as marijuana and cocaine. Could drug-sniffing RATS join the police force? Researchers at the University of Baltimore and Villanova University think so!

The research team led by Dr. James Otto trained rats to rear up on their hind legs in response to the smell of cocaine and other chemicals. (The cocaine smell was a powder used to train dogs for drug detection, not real cocaine.) The rats were trained to find odors that were hidden in a maze. A computer tracked the rats and received a special signal when the rats reared up.

After a few weeks of training, the rats detected 90% of the cocaine smell trials correctly and gave false alarms (rearing up when no cocaine was present) in only 10% of the trials.

The next step for the research team is to bring the rats out of the laboratory and into the real world to see if rats could be used on the job. It is possible that small rats could be used to investigate places that drug-sniffing dogs cannot reach. The low cost of drug-sniffing rats may appeal to police departments that cannot afford the cost of dogs.

Perhaps we will soon see rats graduating from the police academy!

Did you know?

  • A rat brain weighs about 2 grams; the average adult human brain weighs about 1,400 grams.
  • The cerebral cortex of a rat occupies about 33% of volume of its brain; the cerebral cortex of a human occupies about 77% of the total volume of the brain.

References and further information:

  1. Otto, J., Brown, M.F. and Long, W.L., III. Training rats to search and alert on contraband odors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 77:217-232, 2002.
  2. The Nose Knows - from Neuroscience for Kids
  3. Experiment with the sense of smell

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